Organizations rely on information technology more than ever. As a result, IT teams now need an overwhelming amount of knowledge and expertise to manage the scale and complexity of their computing environments.
But they simply cannot be expected to remember everything to perform their duties. That’s why IT documentation has become so important to the modern data-oriented business. It’s the only way to stay on top of the challenges of running an efficient, reliable, and secure IT environment. (For more information, see our Guide to IT Audits.)
However, not all IT documentation is created equal. And not every company gets a worthwhile return on their documentation investment.
This guide makes the case for IT documentation by exploring the multitude of benefits it can bring to a business. It also shows organizations how to do it the right way—by running through what they need to consider when they dive into their first documentation project.
What Is IT Documentation?
IT documentation is an internal library of information for use by IT teams to help them go about their day-to-day roles.
It provides information such as:
- guidance on how IT systems work
- network, system, and device configurations
- how to execute processes and rectify issues
- incident response plans
A fully featured IT documentation system will provide convenient real-time access to a highly searchable and centralized knowledge base, serving as a single source of truth for all the information the IT department needs.
The ultimate goal of IT documentation is to help employees avoid wasting valuable time tracking down the information they need to perform a specific task. It shares much in common with technical documentation, which comprises externally-facing manuals and user guides that explain how to use a product or service. However, the two are not one and the same.
The Benefits of IT Documentation
IT documentation helps staff get their work done more quickly. It provides clear steps on how to do things properly—in line with standard company procedures. This reduces the scope for operational mistakes and streamlines workflows.
This operational efficiency is particularly important to managed service providers (MSPs) who typically manage a wide range of different client deployments. Customers are impatient and want resolutions to their problems fast. Documentation will therefore help with both the speed and quality of their service and maintain good customer relationships accordingly.
With proper documentation, companies can shrink the learning curve for new employees. Newcomers can quickly become a productive part of the team and will even be able to perform complex tasks without the time-consuming involvement of more senior members of the IT team.
IT documentation also helps to plug the knowledge gaps of existing staff through better information sharing across the organization.
Good documentation improves visibility into IT assets and processes. This boosts understanding of computer systems, providing useful insights for undertakings such as:
- new development projects
- infrastructure provisioning
- standardization of technology
- regulatory compliance
Furthermore, IT documentation is open to anyone who needs it. This makes technicians more accountable for the documentation they create, driving them to set a higher bar for the quality of their work.
IT documentation provides important reference material that can help prevent rogue configurations and many other operational and coding mistakes.
It can also aid security teams by storing information about vulnerability remediation workflows and details on how to identify, contain, or recover from a cyberattack. And, if it supports restricted access capabilities, it can also serve as a secure place for storing certain types of credentials, such as internal MFA information.
Furthermore, it reduces reliance on individual staff members by ensuring much of their knowledge is still available in the event they go off sick, are on holiday, or leave the organization.
Types of IT Documentation
Different types of documentation serve different roles. The following are the main categories of IT documentation, each of which is based on the fundamental purpose it serves.
Details of networks, hardware, and endpoint devices, along with the operating systems and applications they host. Information typically includes:
- instructions for workstation deployments
- network topologies
- infrastructure-as-code (IaC) templates
- IP addresses
- system monitoring software
- compliance requirements
Step-by-step details on how to undertake different operational procedures, such as how to:
- provision new servers
- generate reports
- run print and batch processing jobs
- perform year-end tasks
- restore a system following a cyberattack or other disruptive event
Information specific to individual projects and systems, such as:
- what a system does and how it works
- application topology
- file specifications and schemas
- security and compliance requirements
Technical Support Information
A reference library for technical support staff, providing instructions on how to meet common requests from users and troubleshoot operational issues. It typically includes information on how to deal with:
- error messages
- network connectivity problems
- slow performance
- backup failures
- password reset requests
- escalation points
It may also provide instructions on how to use the technical support system itself along with information for MSPs such as customer details and service history.
More technical content, explaining the purpose, functionality, and architecture of a product or service. It is primarily geared towards advanced users and developers, providing important reference material such as:
- technical specifications
- API documentation
- system requirements
- compatibility information
Information for end users, explaining how to use a product or service and how to get the most out of it. It will be used by different types of people with different knowledge levels. So it should be easy to understand and designed to help users help themselves as much as possible—without having to contact technical support.
Types of Documentation Systems
There are three main methods of creating a documentation system. These involve using:
- Spreadsheets, documents, or database tables
- An internal wiki
- Dedicated IT documentation software
For small-scale IT environments, a rudimentary documentation system, based on spreadsheets, tables, or documents, may be perfectly sufficient and only necessitate everyday productivity tools such as Microsoft 365 and Google Workspace. However, such documentation will be difficult to organize and difficult to share across large-scale organizations.
An alternative solution is to create a wiki—an online resource that can be set up using one of any number of different technologies, including Microsoft 365 and Google Sites, and configured for internal use.
The main issue with a wiki is that anyone with editing rights can change it. This can be problematic, as IT documentation is business critical and should be the responsibility of only those who are accountable for the accuracy of the information it contains.
For the most part, especially for more complex environments, the best solution is to use dedicated IT documentation software. Such tools make it easy to create, edit, and organize documents.
They also provide off-the-shelf templates with a standard set of predefined entry fields for entering specific types of information. That way, technicians don’t have to waste unnecessary time and effort deciding what information to include. Templates also ensure a consistent, repeatable, and efficient method of recording information.
In addition, some types of IT documentation software can keep track of document lifecycles and provide audit logging of content changes. Some can also automate certain documentation tasks, thereby helping to improve efficiency and the consistency of information. Additional functionality may also include:
- specialist features for MSPs and value-added resellers (VARs)
- a password management system
- a document import option
- integrations with other software, such as helpdesk systems
- centralized cloud-based storage
IT documentation is a valuable asset to any organization. But it also requires practice, attention to detail, and a certain level of know-how.
The following best practices are a starting point for getting full value out of IT documentation.
The quality of work that people do is only as good as the instructions and methods they’re given for doing it. The content provided in IT documentation should therefore be as clear, thorough, and accurate as possible.
It should be carefully structured to ensure it’s concise and easy to follow. There should be no missing steps or inaccuracies that could leave users confused. And, likewise, it should avoid any ambiguities or anything that could be open to interpretation.
Content should be in simple, everyday language wherever possible and avoid technical jargon unless it’s strictly necessary for the user’s understanding. It should avoid unnecessary fluff and stuffy language. It should be direct and use the active rather than passive voice.
And, finally, it should always put the user first. So consider the type of reader the content is addressing and don’t simply make assumptions about what they know or don’t know —unless there are good grounds to do so.
A consistent and familiar format makes it easier for users to understand documentation.
So start by enforcing the use of a style guide so everyone adopts a standard method of formatting content across all forms of documentation throughout the organization.
Furthermore, no-one wants to read a solid wall of text. So make it more approachable and digestible through visual enhancements such as:
- bullet points
- color schemes
- tables, charts and, diagrams
- images and videos
And make life easy for users to find their way around documentation by giving due attention to content structure and navigational aids such as menus, hyperlinks, and breadcrumbs.
Testing and Feedback
Testing and feedback are an important part of the documentation process, as they help to find weaknesses in content and improve it accordingly.
So put IT documentation through its paces by getting users to road-test it.
It also helps to request and monitor feedback from users, such as how long it took them to perform certain tasks and whether they ran into any problems.
Moreover, IT teams should look out for other indicators to the success of their documentation, such as:
- the number and nature of support calls
- whether people are actually using their documentation
- how much they’re actually using the technology it relates to
As part of their IT documentation initiatives, organizations should promote a culture that encourages people to make use of their documentation, keep it up to date, and uphold documentation standards.
It’s therefore important that those responsible for creating and maintaining it understand that documentation is worth their investment in time and effort. One way to do this is by making maintenance of documentation a standard part of their work routine.
Companies should review their documentation on a regular basis. They should also make people accountable for their documentation work by assigning formal roles and responsibilities—giving preference to those with hands-on experience rather than expecting people to document an unfamiliar technology.
No Time to Wait
IT documentation plays an important role in the smooth and efficient operation of virtually any modern business.
So the sooner you begin, the sooner you’ll get a return on your documentation investment.
Start by getting individuals on board with your project and develop a plan of action. Then decide what information to record, how you’re going to record it, and how you intend to organize it.
Put together a series of templates for different types of documentation. And invest in IT documentation software and other tools that support the documentation process.
Finally, work out where documentation is likely to make the biggest impact and set priorities accordingly. In other words, go for the low-hanging fruit first then set about writing your content.
IT documentation should constantly change as assets, the business, and operational needs change. This makes it vital that organizations understand how it affects both SMEes and global enterprises.
Organizations can create effective documentation only with a granular view of all assets and their dependencies. This makes the choice of an agentless IT infrastructure and application mapping software solution critical.
Faddom helps organizations worldwide with IT documentation by mapping their entire hybrid IT environments — both in the cloud and on premise — in as little as one hour. Start a free trial to the right!