After starting a new job recently, I wanted to learn about my benefits, vacation time and payroll. Turning to the Intranet, all I found were long, dry policy documents. When I queried HR about these topics, I was told: “The policies are on the Intranet.”
Needless to say, I am a bit flustered, but my situation is hardly unique. It represents the problem corporate service providers (HR, payroll, security, IT and—ironically—communications) have communicating with their clients: A reliance on policies to explain everything.
So what can be done to bridge the gap between a service provider’s policy expertise and the average worker? Simple: Provide a basic overview before pointing people to a policy.

Policies Are Not Meant to be Simple

Policy documents are reference materials, not communications tools. They are formal, specific and deliberate. Crafted over weeks—or months—they are not meant to provide quick answers, but cover every eventuality.
In addition, they are linear—once a term is defined, it may be referenced many times, but without repeating the definition. This forces a reader to backtrack, find definitions and do a complex logic-dance to determine an answer.

So Why Do We Keep Finding Only Policies?

From 2 years of working on Intranets, the common rationale for why there aren’t introductions or summaries is: “We’re too busy to write explanations for everything. If someone has a question, they can check the policy like we do.”
There are two things wrong with this: You don’t need to write everything; and not everyone knows the policy like you do.
The 80/20 Rule: Answer the Common Questions
The 80/20 Rule of Web Communications states that 80% of questions can be answered by 20% of your knowledge. That is, nearly all questions will deal with the same basic topics. The rest will deal with specific, exceptional or unusual situations, which is where your expertise and personal attention is needed.
Applying the 80/20 Rule to policies, you don’t need to explain everything—just provide an overview covering (from what in your experience are) the most common questions. This overview will address the bulk of queries you might receive, saving you from having to answer them repeatedly.
Of course, provide a disclaimer that the overview is a general overview and readers should refer to the policy for circumstances the overview doesn’t cover and to contact you if they have questions.
If you think you don’t have time for this, what do you think takes longer:

  1. Writing this summary once?
  2. The time spent answering the same questions over the course of a year?

“Read the Policy” – You Know It; They Don’t
When you routinely deal with a topic, you forget others don’t know it as well as you, be it a policy, technology or TV series. You know the terminology, the exceptions, how A affects B affects C. So when you use that terminology (“If you’re on Comm6, make sure you submit a 9200 to ITHD.”) with someone who doesn’t work in your domain, you get confused looks.
This is true for policies. Yes, you can’t answer some questions without referring to the policy, but you know the fundamentals and what section to check. Not true for the average work, who might spend hours looking for something you could locate in a few minutes.
And it’s frustrating when the answer to a question is glaringly obvious in a policy you deal with daily, but to the average worker the policy might be impenetrable.

Keep the Policies, but as Step Two

Having policies on an Intranet is important (I’m not saying they aren’t), but as reference material to support top-line communications tools.
If you are a policy-based service provider, your role is to understand and interpret that policy. This is not true of your clients (who have their own policies to deal with). You may think you are being efficient and saving time by pointing someone to a policy, but in the end it’s not. Forcing someone to slog through the policy results in wasted time, frustration and perhaps actions taken against policy because someone misunderstood it.
Use your knowledge, experience and expertise to improve efficiency by heading-off those oft-repeated questions by creating communications tools that answer those frequently asked questions.
If you need help, ask your communications shop. If they refer you to their policies, refer them to this blog post.