Spiritual Adventures in the Workplace

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Information, Please (Part 3 of Series)

Series Disclaimer: The scenario in this series is fictional.  The bank, the banker, the customer, and the card in question are all created as an example for this series.  The training department, help desks, and procedures are equally fictitious.  Any resemblance to actual people and situations is purely coincidental.

Our banker is still puzzled about the issue we’ve been having with our debit card.  She has gone back over the notes from her training and has confirmed that she’s been doing what she was taught.  The answer must be somewhere in the company’s policies and procedures.  She gets down to work researching the problem…..


Companies vary in the degree to which their policies and procedures are spelled out.  In some smaller corporations, only a few people know what the procedures are.  More typically this information is committed to writing, either on paper or online, but the written version is not user-friendly.  Someone who actually wants to follow the rules may have a hard time interpreting them.  This may be due in part to the authors’ writing style, but the main reason has to do with the way the rules are compiled.

Remember what I said last time about corporate training departments?  The same kind of thing happens when a company publishes a P&P for its employees: a project leader convenes meetings with the heads of the relevant departments and gets them to tell her what they think ought to be included in the manual.  She herself is usually not a subject matter expert, nor can she be, since the P&P often covers such a wide range of subjects that no one person or even department can specialize in all those areas.  So when she sits down to compose the finished product, she’s writing what she’s been told by others.

I’ve met some exceptionally good manual writers.  They knew in advance that interpretive problems would come up, so they pelted the various managers with tons of follow-up questions.  Those managers sometimes chafed at having to give such detailed explanations, but the result was a manual that anticipated user’s needs. If our company has such writers, blessed are we. But many companies do not.

I’ve been using the word “manual,” but most policies and procedures are online these days, on the company’s intranet.  I remember how we used to keep them in three-ring binders, and periodically we’d have to rip out certain pages and replace them with updates.  Online manuals make that unnecessary, but they also have certain drawbacks.  For one thing, they erase the historical development that led up to today’s procedures.  If anyone wants to know, “When did that change?” it’s hard to answer their question.

But the biggest problem is online navigation.  The answers may be in the manual, but they can often be difficult to find.  It’s expensive for companies to purchase a Google search engine for their online manuals.  Other search engines are not as exhaustive, which means you often won’t find the article even if you search for keywords that are contained within it.  The manual writers can help by putting links and cross-references within each article, but writers cannot always anticipate the kinds of questions that will come up later.  As a result of these problems, employees can (and often do) spend hours searching for answers that they know must be there, but their search ends in failure.

There is also more than one manual in many companies, depending on what department you’re in.  In the case we’ve been talking about, our banker has access to an online version of the branch P&P.  There are other online manuals that she cannot see: one for the call center, another for online banking, and still others for business banking and the various help desks.  These manuals are considered proprietary: no one outside those departments is allowed to look at them.

These are the basic behind-the-scenes considerations that we need to know about in order to understand our banker’s problem, but the case we’ve been discussing is also unique.  It turns out that some of the people who contributed to the branch manual knew the answer to her question but decided it was best to leave it out of the branch P&P.  They didn’t want bankers to be proactive about solving the problem because it was an exception to the rule.  So they left it out of the manual, with the expectation that bankers would call the Help Desk for the answer.  Meanwhile, they insured that the answer was in the Help Desk’s manual.

Because she is extremely diligent, our banker spends a few days searching for the answer.  Finally she calls the Help Desk.  She’s so close to finding the answer…..


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