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One of the more common mistakes in practical manuals is the lack of understanding of what is a process and what is a procedure and how to document them. This posting focuses on processes.

A process gives you a ‘big picture’ overview of how something is done. It is a series of events, stages or phases that take place over time and have an identifiable result or purpose. More than one person may perform the stages or phases.

For example, recruitment is a process. It is an activity completed in stages and often by more than one person. A typical recruitment process may include:

  1. Decide on position description.
  2. Write advertisement and place on Seek.
  3. Receive and read responses.
  4. Cut responses down to shortlist.
  5. Inform unsuccessful applicants who did not make shortlist.
  6. Interview shortlist applicants.
  7. Cut shortlist to final selection or selections.
  8. Re-interview candidates to finalise selection if needed.
  9. Decide which candidate to select.
  10. Notify selected candidate.
  11. Negotiate final contract, set start date.

Clues for identifying a process

It is a process if:

  • it describes ‘what happens’
  • it describes ‘how something works’
  • it is an operation that has events, stages or phases.

Other examples of a process include construction of a car on a production line, how a piece of equipment works, how the email system works, and what happens when a person is charged with a crime.

Procedures within a process

Within some or all of the stages of a process there may be one or more procedures to carry out to complete the stage. A procedure is a set of steps that one person performs in order to obtain a specific outcome. ‘What is a procedure?’ will be covered in the next blog post.

Types of processes

There are four types of process:

  • linear – changes made during a specific, sequential time period
  • branching – different courses of action depending on what happens
  • cyclical – stages in a repetitive cycle
  • cause and effect – describes various conditions and the results of those conditions.

How you document a process will depend on what type of process it is, the preference or needs of the manual’s users, and your skills in creating graphics (Word’s SmartArt feature, on the ‘Insert’ ribbon, can be useful here. It has graphics for illustrating processes and cycles).

How to write a process

The common elements of a well-documented process include:

  • a heading – common heading types are ‘Stages of …’, ‘How a … works’, or ‘Cycle of …’
  • tables – most common element in documenting a process
  • one or more diagrams – linear, cyclical, branching or whatever best illustrates the big picture of the process
  • any other extra information needed to enhance reader understanding, e.g. brief introduction or background.

A stage table is the most common format to document a process. It is simple and allows for some description if needed. It can also include small graphics. Remember that it is describing the big picture, not giving detailed instructions of how to perform the stage (a procedure). Your process document can include reference to attached procedures, e.g. see ‘How to write a job advertisement’ (for our recruiting process). Another good table is the when-then or when-then-and style. Word’s SmartArt provides linear and cyclical process illustrations that can be adapted to your needs.

Examples of these table and graphic types, plus an example of a documented process, can be viewed in this PDF.

Next blog: What is a procedure?

Photo: A vista of the Cars Land ‘Cars’ ride, Disney’s California Adventure Park, Anaheim, California.