Handbooks and manuals are the most common form of documentation in the business environment. Many now come in electronic forms, such as documentation stored on a corporate intranet, but in whatever form they appear, they are used to instruct and guide employees on technical procedures, corporate policies, and many other kinds of information that is not intuitively obvious or easy to remember. Without them, employees would lose a valuable reference source and businesses would suffer from a variety of problems, ranging from untrained workers to liability lawsuits.

Some people make sharp distinctions between what is a manual and what is a handbook, but in practice there is substantial overlap. By convention, certain types of publications are more frequently called manuals, notably in technical documentation for software programs and for machine operation. However, these same sorts of publications may be termed users' guides, help guides, reference books, or something else altogether.

Ambiguity in the nomenclature should not obscure the importance of good documentation or the need to target such documentation to a specific audience. All manuals and handbooks are not alike; authors and designers must consider

For example, if a manual is intended to be a quick, at-a-glance reference for factory workers, it probably should not be a bulky, text-heavy, hardcover book, unless an analysis of the users' work habits indicate that such a format would be convenient. More likely, a manual for this purpose should be short, graphical, possibly tabbed or color-coded for fast access, and provided in a physical format that is compatible with the way its users work. The same kinds of usability considerations apply to most types of manuals and handbooks.



Businesses need handbooks and manuals to keep employees, suppliers, customers, shareholders, and anyone else who has an interest in their business apprised of policies, procedures, and regulations. The documents in some cases represent the company's survival. In today's litigious society, companies often become the targets of lawsuits that can cost them millions of dollars. Some of these lawsuits, e.g., those regarding sexual harassment and product liability, can be avoided if companies include in their handbooks explanations of their policies regarding those issues.


The second important class of documentation concerns how to use technology. For example, a company that purchases machinery of any type, from punch presses to computers, needs manuals to explain to the people who will be using it how the equipment operates, when it is to be serviced, what to do when it fails, and so on. Likewise, if a company purchases software for its operations, it must also acquire manuals which explain how the software operates and provide instructions to employees on how to use it. Manufacturing concerns need extensive documentation to stay abreast of government regulations, safety standards, and other issues legislated by local federal, and state agencies.


Handbooks and manuals are also used in training programs, often in the form of tutorial or instructional guides. Here the object is not merely to document a process or procedure, but to actively teach something. Many policies, particularly those that have a direct impact on the employee and the company, may require follow-up training as well. Such topics might include sexual harassment policies and codes of ethics. Also, computer users may require in-class training on different functions of computer hardware and software. Thus, handbooks and manuals are integral parts of in-house training programs. There is seemingly no end to the number and types of documents needed to support a company's operations.


Computers have greatly facilitated the production of manuals and handbooks, as well as providing an efficient medium for disseminating their content. Simple printed manuals, such as those for internal use, can be easily and cheaply produced using standard word processing software. With more advanced desktop publishing software—and someone who knows how to use it—a company can also produce highly formatted, professional-quality publications using source files generated on a desktop computer and shipped out for printing and binding. If the documentation is to be hosted on a corporate intranet or other electronic medium, the process may even be simpler, requiring only a conversion of the files to a readily viewable format like HTML.


Handbooks and manuals are written by anyone from entry-level custodians to the chief executive officers of corporations. Who writes a particular document depends on the size of the corporation, the expertise of the employees, and the purpose of the manual. There are also specialists who are employed full-time or on a contract basis to produce manuals. Many of them fall under the broad headings of technical writers and graphics artists.

Graphics artists produce the illustrations that accompany the text in handbooks and manuals. Technical writers specialize in producing scientific or industry-specific information in readable form for lay persons. "Scientific" in this case can mean anything from data processing language to engineering terms to astrophysics. Often, scientists rely on technical writers to translate the special terminology they use in their fields of expertise into understandable terms for non-scientists or product users.

The purpose of technical writing is to reduce to understandable terms language that might be hard for the average person to comprehend. For example, data processing technical writers produce a wide range of manuals. They might produce user manuals for computer users and systems manuals for programmers and analysts. Technical writers in scientific fields might produce research proposals for professors and consultants or a procedural manual for a geological team to follow.

Not all manuals and handbooks are written by technical writers. An administrative assistant might be asked to write a handbook explaining to coworkers or temporary workers how to use a switchboard or a computer. The chief executive officer of a small corporation may put together an informal handbook for managers on how to supervise people, handle customer returns, etc. Generally, who writes a manual is less important than whether the manual serves a practical purpose, by teaching employees, customers, and other audience members about a procedure, policy, technique, etc.


Handbooks and manuals are only as effective as the manner in which they are presented. The same rules that apply to any form of writing apply to manuals and handbooks. They must be written clearly, concisely, consistently, and accurately. If they are not, the audience for whom they are intended will ignore them, which can lead to problems for some companies.

Document writers must define three things before they write a manual or handbook: audience, purpose, and scope. Once they have defined each, they can begin the writing process.


The audience is important because different groups of people have varied levels of understanding about certain topics. Or, an audience may not be fluent in the language in which the manual is being written. This is particularly true in today's emerging global market environment.

Many products are not manufactured in the countries in which they are sold. This practice, although perhaps cost-efficient, can lead to poor documentation when product documentation is written by individuals who aren't fluent in the export country's language. A company based in Taiwan, for example, may include with its products instructions written in hard-to-understand English. In such cases, the documents may be useless to consumers. This can lead to lost sales and/or customer dissatisfaction.

Even if the writer and the audience do speak the same language, there is a critical need for audience definition. Depending on the anticipated reader, manual writers must choose relevant terminology and make assumptions about what needs to be explained and what is considered obvious. If it's necessary to use technical terms, they may need to be defined. Similarly, the use of illustrations should also be dictated by the intended audience's profile, with diagrams or screen shots being chosen to clarify points that are most crucial or difficult to understand.


Defining the audience is only the first step in producing a manual. The writer must also understand the manual's purpose. Is it meant to be instructional? Informative? Does it present the solution to a problem? The manual's purpose dictates to a great extent how its contents will be presented. For example, if it is instructional, the writer must be able to perform the procedures contained in the manual, because if a "how to" writer is unfamiliar with the procedure being documented, there will be inevitable errors in the manual that will defeat its purpose.


Manuals should also be as comprehensive as possible within a defined scope of coverage; in other words, the manual should have defined boundaries of coverage and should observe these boundaries. This means not including too much or too little. The scope is mostly determined by the purpose, e.g., to teach a user how to use the major functions of a software application. However, the audience may also influence scope, e.g., an intermediate-level audience doesn't need rudimentary information. A writer should make every effort td include all the information that is required by the audience to understand the topic or follow instructions. For instance, if a manufacturer encloses with a product a manual explaining how to assemble it, unpack it, install it, or maintain it—the manual's scope—each of these aspects should be addressed fully.



Once a manual's audience, purpose, and scope are determined, common principles of good writing come into play. The writer should follow an appropriate style guide, whether an in-house standard or an externally published guide, for the subject matter. The project manager should also ensure there is an adequate system of editorial control to avoid errors in the development process. This normally includes going through at least one cycle of copyediting for spelling, grammar, punctuation, and other basic mechanics. It is also beneficial to enlist one or more persons—possibly both experts and lay readers—to proofread the document and its illustrations for clarity, accuracy, and ease of use. A major manual development project, such as a lengthy reference guide for customers, may also require at least one phase of audience review, during which a small group, e.g., a five-member focus group or panel, of real-life users (or potential users) from outside the company are asked to review and comment on the documentation while there is still time to revise it.


Perhaps the most basic consideration at the outset of the manual writing process is to ensure that the writer is capable of producing the intended documentation. This involves ascertaining not only whether the writer's general capabilities relate to the project, but also that the writer is equipped with the resources and information he or she needs to be successful. Though seemingly obvious, this is a common concern in technical product documentation, particularly when a new product is being fine-tuned at the last minute. Often in these cases the manual writer will begin working before the product is finalized. At other times there may not be a functioning model of the product for the writer to observe or test in the beginning. A well-designed development process will ensure that as product changes are implemented the writer has sufficient access to this information to write competently about the subject.


One of the keys to the success of any manual or handbook is conciseness. Readers do not want to read any more than is absolutely necessary in order to learn how to perform a procedure, accept or evaluate a proposal, or assimilate information.


The next step is clarity. The language used should consist of commonly used words, rather than complex, seldom-used words that will confuse the readers. Moreover, sentences should be constructed to maximize readability. A common complaint about technical manuals is that they contain all the information a user may need, but the material is difficult, if not impossible, to digest. The writer may have achieved factual accuracy and comprehensiveness, but if the information is buried in awkward sentences and unorganized paragraphs, the manual's purpose will be defeated.


Another factor to consider is consistency. Manuals should be consistent in terminology, format, and presentation. If a writer starts with a numbering system for paragraphs and sections, it should be followed throughout. If visual aids such as charts, graphs, and diagrams, which are used to enhance, clarify, and supplement the material, don't refer to the contents of the manual, they, too, will be distracting.


Illustrations are important components of manuals and handbooks. Illustrations in many forms can be used, ranging from simple hand-drawn charts and graphs to three-dimensional computer-generated designs. They can be produced by engineers, graphics artists, freelance artists, or secretaries working with computer graphics software packages. Illustrations can be changed at any stage of the production process, especially when computers are used to create them.


For printed manuals, the project manager must determine the manual's physical format. This includes three main areas:

As with other aspects of manual production, these features should be directed by audience needs and the manual's purpose. Layout and presentation include the page format, typography, and, if necessary, colors. Color is visually stimulating and increasingly affordable, and it may also serve audience needs. For instance, various sections of the manual may be color coded to enable speedy retrieval of information. In some cases, it may also be helpful to include complex illustrations in color. Size is another key consideration. For product manuals, one basic requirement is that the manual must fit within the product packaging. Size may also be related to usability issues.

Choosing the material is relatively straightforward, although some manuals will have special material requirements. Most manuals are printed on uncoated medium or lightweight paper. Some, however, may be produced on glossy magazine-style pages or on thicker cardstock for special purposes. For example, a short, flip-tab reference guide for a specialized software package may employ rigid, laminated pages to maximize ease of use and durability.

The cover and binding also impact longevity and ease of use. The typical product manual has a thick, coated paper cover and what is known as perfect binding. Perfect binding uses a flexible glue on the manual's spine to hold the pages together; this is used on many commercial softcover publications. Pages in longer manuals or ones that require special longevity may also be stitched together before binding glue is applied. For manuals that should lie flat while open, such as software tutorials in which the user reads from the manual while working at the computer, a mechanical binding, such as plastic comb/spiral binding, is best.


A good practice recommended by documentation experts is to follow up production of a handbook or manual with an evaluation stage. This may involve reviewing the final product against the original goals or conducting a more formal assessment that solicits user feedback.


From the moment employees are hired to the time they leave a company, they will be using different types of handbooks and manuals. When they are initially hired, for example, they will probably be handed an orientation manual that includes extensive information they will need to fit into the corporate culture. Upon retiring, they will be given a handbook that spells out everything from benefits to payment schedules and how to ease the transition between work and retirement. In between, they will use many other handbooks and manuals, some of which are discussed below.


Orientation handbooks are provided to new employees of corporations. They are often combined with employee handbooks. These documents might include the company's mission statement, history, and code of ethics. Many corporations pay particular attention to these three categories.

The mission statement is a broad declaration of the basic, unique purpose and scope of operations that distinguishes the organization from others of its type. Employees must know from the beginning of their careers what their roles within the organization will be. The mission statement defines that role. It also defines a common purpose, encourages company loyalty, and creates a sense of community among workers. The mission statement provides managers a benchmark against which they can measure individual and organizational success. Finally, the mission statement provides insight into the company's operation for investors, customers, and anyone else who has an interest. Since most employers want to inculcate the company's culture in employees at the beginning of their careers, they see the orientation handbook as the proper place to start the process.

Of equal importance is the employer's code of ethics, which is a document prepared to guide organization members when they encounter an ethical dilemma. This is sometimes a stand-alone document given to each company employee. In some cases, employees must sign a statement acknowledging that they have read, understand, and agree to abide by the code. Nearly three-quarters of the major corporations in the United States have written codes of ethics.

A company history is a common inclusion in an orientation handbook to provide employees with an insight into the company's growth and importance to the community. This is particularly true of older firms such as Procter & Gamble Co., which has been around since 1837, and Dexter Manufacturing, which opened its doors in 1767. Both of these companies have gone through major changes in their histories and will no doubt experience more. Employees should be made aware of the companies' vicissitudes and the sacrifices their predecessors have made to ensure the firms' futures. Eliciting a feeling of belonging can be done through company histories.

Orientation handbooks include a variety of other information that human resources and management specialists consider necessary to the starting employee. This information can range from the location of local banks and grocery stores to a description of the employers' physical plant layouts. The contents of such handbooks vary from company to company, but their intent is always the same: to welcome new employees and help them fit into the company's culture and workforce as quickly as possible.


Employee handbooks are logical extensions of orientation documents. They are intended to present more in-depth information for employees who have been with the employer for a while and who are expected to stay for the foreseeable future. These documents may contain some of the same information included in orientation handbooks. For the most part, however, they are designed to keep employees informed of topics of continuing and significant interest, such as work hours, benefit programs, affirmative action policies, grievance procedures, counseling programs, etc. They may also include information concerning company-sponsored social activities, location of company stores, restaurants, and fitness centers, local business firms that provide discounts for employees, and the like. The contents of employee handbooks are often dictated by the size of the company, number of employees, and other factors. Regardless of the scope of the handbook, however, it is always intended to be as complete a compendium as possible regarding information employees need to function effectively within the corporate environment. These documents may be considerably larger in union environments.


Companies which have agreements with labor unions are likely to have a broader range of material included in employee handbooks. Sometimes union agreements are stand-alone documents. Some employers, however, prefer to include essential union-related information in employee handbooks and treat the union contract as a separate document. Both management and labor representatives maintain extensive handbooks and manuals to monitor one another's activities.

Manuals can include descriptions of virtually every activity covered under contract administration. There are sections addressing discipline, incentives, work assignments, individual personnel assignments, hours of work, supervisors performing production work, production standards, working conditions, sub-contracting, past practice, rules, and so on. These manuals might also include the actual contracts negotiated between labor and management. It is essential that both sides have copies of these documents—and that they adhere to the information therein.

It is particularly important that management have on hand readily accessible union contracts and relevant documentation. Union stewards, the elected or appointed shop floor union representatives responsible for interpreting the contract for union members and processing grievances, are generally extremely knowledgeable about the contents of labor contracts. Management should be equally knowledgeable. Historically, however, that is not the case. Managers who do not pay attention to union contracts can hurt themselves and their employers.

There are other documents extant in union environments. For example, there are bargaining books, which are cross-referenced files enabling negotiators to determine quickly what contract clauses would be affected by involved parties' demands. These books contain information like the general history of specific contract terms and a code to indicate the proposals' relative importance to management. Many bargaining books today are automated and keyed to spread-sheets. This allows negotiators to answer "what if questions immediately and calculate the cost implications of demands and concessions. Such books contain much valuable information. For example, they include the history and text of the particular clause as it was negotiated in previous contracts, comparisons of the company's experience with that of other companies in the industry, the company's experience with the particular clause, both in operation and the grievances, and legal issues pertaining to the clause


Some companies produce these handbooks separately. Others will combine them. In some cases, firms will produce three separate handbooks, one for each level of management. Those distributed to senior-level executives might deal exclusively with topics like public policy, government regulation, etc. These are issues not likely to affect middle- and first-level managers to any great extent. How the documents are produced and for which levels of management they are intended is dependent on a company's size, number of employees, etc. In large companies, however, they are frequently produced separately.

Not all managers are responsible for subordinates. Managers are not necessarily leaders of people, whereas supervisors are. In general, supervisors are responsible for production in a workplace. They are the first-line supervisors. Managers are generally considered to be middle level. More often than not, they manage other managers, including supervisors. Therefore, the contents of a supervisor's manual may differ greatly from those of a manager's manual. A general overview of the two types of manuals reveals that they may contain information about how to: handle grievances; enforce company policies concerning work hours and dress codes; administer discipline; reward and motivate employees; and recognize employees' personal problems such as substance abuse, financial difficulties, etc., that might have an impact on their work performances.


Personnel manuals traditionally have been the corporate bible. They contain information that explains the rules, policies, procedures, etc., that govern a company's day-to-day operations. Without them, no company can survive.

The list of topics included in personnel manuals is seemingly endless. The issues discussed cover every facet of a company's operations. In many cases, the manuals are so thick that they can be maintained only at certain locations within a company. They are too cumbersome and expensive to produce and to distribute them to every employee. Thus, they may be maintained only in the human resources department, on selected executives' desks, or in the company library. Wherever they are housed, they must be accessible to all employees at all times.

Human resource management is the management of various activities designed to enhance the effectiveness of an organization's work force in achieving organizational goals. The activities include functions like planning, staffing, employment development and evaluation, compensation, and maintaining effective work force relationships. Manuals must reflect these activities.

A basic personnel manual is likely to include job descriptions, job specifications, organizational charts, affirmative action rules, job posting procedures, employee selection guidelines, training and development policies, compensation and benefit schedules, sexual harassment guidelines, and employee assistance programs (EAPs). This list is by no means inclusive of all the topics that might be

The key to maintaining personnel manuals is constant updating. Often, personnel manuals and/or employee handbooks are considered legal contracts to which the corporation is liable for violations of company policies, procedures, and rules. It is important to note that the three terms are not synonymous.

A policy is a general guide that specifies the broad parameters within which organization members are expected to operate in pursuit of organizational goals. A procedure is a prescribed series of related steps to be taken under certain recurring circumstances. A rule spells out specific actions to be taken or not taken in a given situation. The company may have some flexibility in each of these areas, but if nothing regarding policies, procedures, and rules is written in some type of readily accessible document, it may be subject to legal action from disgruntled or displaced workers. In light of this, it is important that personnel manuals be updated to reflect the most recent changes in company policies, procedures, rules, and outside influences that might impact its operations. For example, it is crucial that companies update affirmative action guidelines and sexual harassment policies immediately if changes to them should be necessary. It is especially important to update policies dictated by local, state, or federal governments


Occasionally, personnel manuals are simply too extensive to distribute to every staff member. Therefore, it is prudent to produce mini-manuals which include the issues that most directly concern workers. These might include benefits, job posting, employee assistance, etc. (These subsets illustrate clearly the subtle difference between a manual and a handbook. In this case, the personnel manual includes all the relevant human resources topics. The handbooks are dedicated to a limited number of those topics individually or in combination.)

There are several advantages to personnel handbooks. Employees have immediate access to them. That also makes it more likely that employees will become aware of critical changes in pertinent issues as soon as they are distributed. For example, if an employer distributes a Grievance Procedure Handbook which includes sexual harassment and Affirmative Action guidelines, any changes to one or all of the policies will reach employees' attention immediately. Occasionally, companies may ask employees to acknowledge changes by signing distribution forms that act as contracts. This is one way of ensuring that employees read and understand critical handbooks.


Documentation is particularly important in EDP operations. Virtually every aspect of a data processing system is documented. For example, there is extensive documentation involved in the EDP life cycle. Developing an EDP system comprises several stages: analysis and design (when the basic concepts of the system are laid out by analysts and designers), development (when the programs are being written), integration (when the programs are assembled into a cohesive system), implementation (when the system is up and running), and maintenance and enhancement (making sure the system runs smoothly to its logical demise). There is also the ultimate document to be produced in the EDP arena: the user manual.

Users are often unfamiliar with many of the concepts used in EDP. Their sole interest at times is simply to acquire an end product that will facilitate their operations. Generally, they have a representative on the system development team, but often just in an advisory capacity. The system developers themselves may not be too eager to produce reams of documentation. The ultimate responsibility, then, rests on the shoulders of technical writers. They are generally the people responsible for producing the large number of manuals and handbooks that are natural by-products of EDP projects.

However, the manuals produced by EDP developers are by no means restricted to in-house users and other people. Software developers and hardware manufacturers must produce concise, easy-to-understand handbooks and manuals for purchasers of computers. More and more people are buying computers today for home use. Each computer and its software must be accompanied by a user manual instructing users how to install and use them. This is a daunting task for technical writers, since many home computer users are not EDP experts. This same idea applies to other instruction and information manuals produced by manufacturers for consumers.


Virtually every manufacturer that sells products to consumers today must include as part of the package a manual or handbook outlining how to use the product, the hazards associated with it, and other valuable information. Much of the information contained in these consumer manuals is mandated by various governmental agencies and must include all possible hazards associated with each product and contain numbers where consumers can talk to company representatives. Many of the documents provided by manufacturers are included simply to protect the companies as much as possible from consumer lawsuits.


Many handbooks and manuals are the direct result of government legislation and policies. Companies must, maintain a variety of documentation dealing with federal and state regulations regarding clean water, clean air, noise pollution, workplace safety, etc. Such manuals are especially prevalent in the industrial section of the business environment.

The increased involvement of society and government in business affairs has necessitated a greater demand for laws to protect the environment and increase worker safety. Chemical manufacturers, for example, must adhere to strict federal and state environmental pollution guidelines which are part of various clean air and water acts. In order to do so, they must maintain comprehensive manuals and handbooks outlining policies, fines for violating the acts, reporting regulations, etc.


Today, handbooks and manuals can be stored in a variety of mediums. There are still large numbers of them in hard copy resident on employees' desks. Some companies prefer to store them in collections at central points such as libraries and selected department offices. There has been a trend toward storing documents on-line via computer. People who want access to them can gain it via computer. Other companies store all or part of their handbooks and manuals on microfiche. Regardless of which medium is used, handbooks and manuals will not go out of style.


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