Past Its Sell-By Date

When you document computer systems, software, or corporate processes, it’s easy for the documentation to get out of date. A new software release comes out, new processes are instituted, a new server comes on board in the data center. How do you know when it is time to update a document?

There are a couple of key principles that make it possible to stay up to date.
Just as a carton of milk has a sell-by date, each document you store in your information storage system needs two timestamps:

  • The release date (when the document was approved as accurate for use by the intended audience)
  • A review frequency (quarterly, yearly, etc.)

The review frequency date indicates when this document and the others in its group should be reviewed for accuracy.

Typically, documents are reviewed at least yearly. For some documents that deal with fast-changing material, more frequent reviews are more appropriate. If software updates are done quarterly, for example, then all user guides and specs related to that software should be reviewed quarterly as well.

Whatever the frequency is, when the review date approaches, a techwriter needs to review  the document, check it against the computer system (if applicable) and review it with the appropriate subject matter experts. The techwriter makes any needed updates, goes through the usual approval process, and releases the document again with the new date.

Documentation storage systems often made this easier by allowing you to flag documents for review at a certain time and sending out reminders that reviews are needed. In the meantime, before the formal review, you may get emails or other notifications that something is wrong in a document. If it is fairly minor, you can just collect the information and include the change in the next revision. If it is major, you will obviously need to issue an interim release before the next scheduled review time.

About Carol

Technical Writer for over 20 years--with a broad range of industries and material types. I love to get into the details about how a business works and figure out how to help people do their job better with well-crafted documentation.
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