With the rise in prominence of knowledge management, communication, and documentation as independent and cross-cutting activities, organizations have strived to facilitate increasingly better documentation practices through capacity building guides and tools. Documentation is a crucial activity that supports knowledge management and communication, ensuring that the right information is available to leadership and relevant stakeholders in a timely fashion.
To maintain a reliable record of project activities and outcomes, timely documentation is key. It not only allows an organization to monitor and report its activities and have a clear picture of progress at any point during a project, it also provides precise references for accumulated data. Documentation ensures a dependable and verifiable source of data (as opposed to anecdotal information) and is a key tool for centralizing and maximizing knowledge exchange.
Staff turnover poses numerous knowledge-related challenges to any organization; when losing an employee, an organization also stands to lose much of the knowledge the employee holds unless it is properly documented. In cases where turnover is unconventionally high, the organization is repeatedly forced to train and orient new employees, which can limit the depth of learning in those roles. On the other hand, where employees have longer tenure on average, a significant gap of several years or even decades’ worth of knowledge potentially could be lost with their departure if that knowledge is not captured and recorded along the way.
Sustainability is a core focus of most organizations, particularly for development organizations and government institutions. Without proper documentation of activity data, it is difficult to assess how to ensure sustainable impact. To prevent this, adoption of ‘lessons learned’ and ‘best practice’ documentation is key and allows future implementers to utilize these strategies in their own activities, ensuring that the learning is carried forward.
Strong documentation is also a critical part of a strong monitoring and evaluation (M&E) system, allowing leadership to track whether targets are being met throughout a project’s life cycle, and if not, investigate why. The continuous improvement process adopted by most organizations ensures that performance is optimized by closely monitoring documented lessons learned and incorporating them into future planning; effective documentation can provide a clear guide to moving forward.
Challenges to Good Documentation
When developing a good documentation practice, it is important to recognize that documents submitted from a variety of sources will vary in quality, structure and format. This may occur for several reasons, such as limited time and skills of the author, lack of clear guidance or standardized tools, or varied documentation policies and standards. Sufficient orientation, clear guidance, sharing of standardized tools, and filtering documentation through a single functional unit can help an organization overcome these challenges.
Site visits are often a necessity when reporting on activities on the ground, but in projects where the beneficiary’s location requires extended travel (as they often are), travel poses a significant and taxing challenge. Logistical issues sometimes play a major part in restricting the amount of documentation that is produced. Adding to this burden are unique travel limitations caused by issues such as conflict and security, or public health issues such as the recent COVID-19 restrictions, which mean that visitations are not possible at all. While these challenges may seem difficult to overcome, preparing accordingly, utilizing virtual tools and integrating documentation activities into other field visits throughout the year can minimize the need for additional visits.
Time is also almost always a serious constraint. With a myriad of activities to accomplish, staff with access to important information simply may not have the time, not only to actively document activities but also to invest in development of related skills. As such, organizations would do well to provide central support and assistance wherever and whenever possible. Moreover, it is key that within the organizational culture, team members view documentation not as an obligatory task but as a tool necessary to facilitate ongoing activities more effectively and efficiently.
Keys to Developing Effective Communication in Development Projects
Due to incremental and rapid changes in the project environment, it is key that documentation is recorded and distributed at optimum times. Specifically, it is important to carefully document many aspects of beneficiaries and stakeholders early on. Furthermore, to ensure that sustainable change is what is being documented, it is vital that enough time is taken post-intervention before recording any changes. Also, documentation that has been carefully vetted should be made available to stakeholders in a timely fashion to ensure it is not out of date by the time it is consumed. Further, where lessons and practices are being shared, a detailed account of the context should be included to ensure that future implementers can accurately model their own strategies in a tailored manner.
While there are many different types of documentation that serve many different purposes, it is important that the communication of the learning is done in a manner that is targeted to the audience and shared in such a way that it is useful and applicable. Efforts should be made to make sure that information on project learning is accessible and available to those who would benefit. Learning events and other dissemination practices can make information available and allow for improvement through stakeholder input.
Growth through Nutrition embraces the importance of good documentation to inform project implementation and ensure project sustainability, and encourages its team members to invest in documentation of activities and learning. Through lessons learned, best practices, and stories of project successes, the project shares much of its documentation through its learning website and events. Please visit the online project library for more information.
Magdalawit Ghirma is the Knowledge Management and Communications Officer for the Growth through Nutrition Activity.