Like technical debt, information debt is a huge problem for all kinds of organizations, and one that all technical writers need to be aware and able to combat directly. Let's backup a little...

Information debt is what happens when there aren't proper systems, tools, and processes in place to maintain and create high quality information resources. A number of unfortunate and expensive things result:

  • People spend time recreating documents, pages, and research that already exists. This is incredibly innefficent and leads to:
  • Inaccurate information propagates throughout the organization and to the public.
  • Information and style "drifts," when information and facts exist in many places.
  • Organizations spend more money on infrastructure and tools as a band-aid when data is poorly organized.
  • People lose confidence in information resources and stop relying on them, preferring to ask other people for information. This increases the communication overhead, noise level, and takes longer for everyone, than using a good resource.

To help resolve information debt:

  • Dedicate resources to paying back information debts. It takes time to build really good resources, to collect and consolidate information, and to keep them up to date. But given the costs of the debt, it's often worth it.
  • Documents must be "living," usefully versioned, and there must be a process for updating documents. Furthermore, while it doesn't make sense to actually limit editing privileges, it's important that responsibility for editing and maintaining documents isn't diffused and thus neglected.
  • Information resources, must have an "owner" within an organization or group who is responsible for keeping it up to date, and making sure that people know it exists. You can have the best repository for facts, if no one uses it and the documents are not up to date, it's worthless.
  • Minimize the number of information resources. While it doesn't always make sense to keep all information in the same resource or system, the more "silos" where a piece of information or document might live the less likely a reader/user will find it.

... and more.

I'm working on adding a lot of writing on information debt in the technical writing section of the wiki. I'll blog more about this, while I continue to work through some of these ideas, but I'm quite interested in hearing your thoughts on this post and on the information-debt pages as well.

Onward and Upward!