Business Processes 4 of 6: How to Document a Business Process

Organizations explain how to follow a particular process through a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP). A Standard Operating Procedure specifically states the policies guiding a particular business process, next presents the preferred procedure for implementing the process, then explains how to handle special situations, such as exceptions and anticipated problems.

Write a Standard Operating Procedure as follows:

1.  Start with a heading, which clearly states the purpose of the procedure.  Always include a verb in the heading; this minimizes the likelihood of misunderstanding.  For example:

Recognizing Academic Programs

Appealing a Test Score

2.  In 1 to 2 sentences (but no more than 2), explain the purpose of the procedure.  When explaining the purpose of the procedure, try to avoid using any of the terms used in the heading for the procedure (just as you would do when defining a term).

Should someone have difficulty comprehending the purpose of a procedure from the heading alone, this provides an alternate explanation that might improve clarity.

For example, for the Appealing a test score procedure, the purpose might read:

Should a student feel that the grade on an examination does not reflect their performance on that exam, the student can follow this procedure to formally request a second opinion on the grade.  Should the second opinion indicate that the first grade was, in error, the grade will be changed.

3. If needed, present the policy that guides the procedure.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a policy “is  a plan or course of action. . . intended to influence and determine decisions, actions, and other matters.  Generally, governments, political parties, businesses, and nonprofit organizations establish policies to guide their actions.

A policy should be stated exactly as it is written, and should be approved by the senior leadership of the organization to ensure that it will be enforced.  (A policy that no one enforces is useless.)

A policy follows this format:

a. States the purpose in 1 or 2 sentences.

b. States the rule to follow, in 1 or 2 sentences.

c. States to whom the policy applies. This is usually written as “This policy applies to …” then states the job titles or classes of individuals to whom it applies.

d. States who administers the policy.  This is usually written “This policy is administered by…” then states the job titles of people who administer the policy.  The policy never states an individual’s name because that individual only temporarily holds the job; the job title usually lasts longer.

e. Explains how to handle known conflicts or problems that might arise.

Example of a policy:

Moving Equipment and Software to Another LocationBecause of a combination of licensing agreements, University policies, and the logistics of tracking inventory, you must first contact the Technical Office before moving equipment, either from one campus to another, or from your office to an off-campus location (except laptop computers).Note: To take equipment off-campus, you need an Exit Pass, which the Manager of the Technical Office can provide.Similarly, because software is licensed to a particular computer (and built-in protection for some software indicates the identification of the computer hardware when registering the license), you must also contact the Technical Office when moving software from one computer to another.

Another example of a policy

Cancellation PolicyIf cancellation should be necessary, written or email notification to ASTD is required five (5) business days prior to the first day of the seminar. You may receive a full refund, minus a $100 administrative fee, up to and including the 5th business day before the seminar. If you find that you cannot attend, and it is less than five (5) business days before the start of the seminar, you may send a replacement, with written notice to ASTD. If you are unable to send a replacement, you forfeit your registration fee.

A third example:

Transfer PolicyParticipants may transfer their registration to another seminar free of charge. The transfer request must be received in writing five (5) business days prior to the first day of the seminar for which you were originally scheduled. A $50 transfer charge will be applied to all transfers received less than five (5) days prior to the first day of the session. Participant substitutions may be made at any time with written notification to ASTD. If the substitute participant is not an ASTD member and the original participant was, the difference between the member and nonmember rate will be billed.{8BA1D945-EE87-401A-883E-494BA953F8F6}&NRORIGINALURL=/astd/termsprivacy/&NRCACHEHINT=NoModifyGuest#cp

4. Provide step-by-step instructions for implementing the procedure.  The instructions not only say what to do, but also explain who performs the task.  This indication of responsibility clarifies responsibilities in business processes that involve more than one department or organization.If work must be transferred from one individual or department, the procedure also provides quality criteria for the work.

For example,  a procedure for transferring draft e-learning programs from instructional designers to a production team might indicate that (a) all text must be complete, (b) all illustrations are either included in the program or in an art package (that is, a list of artwork that needs to be developed along with instructions for each piece of art needed), (c) the extent of programming instructions needed, and (d) the approvals needed before the work can be transferred for production (such as final approval of the content by the sponsoring organization).

For information on writing procedures, see How to Write Procedures at

5. Explain how to handle known issues, such as exceptions to the policy and problems that could arise during the procedure.  For example, a known issue the procedure for transferring draft e-learning programs from instructional designers to a production team is work that does not meet the specifications.  The procedure might indicate that such work is returned to the department with comments on what needs to be fixed before it will be considered ready for production.

6.  Name related processes (if any).  For example, if a process on recognizing academic programs might have a companion process for recognizing commercial programs.  This is the place to mention the other process.

Tip: For further guidance in documenting business processes, see the Template for Documenting a Business Process elsewhere on this website.


American Heritage Dictionary,  quotation policy at Visited January 26, 2009.

© Copyright 2012. Saul Carliner. All rights reserved.  If sharing or excerpting, should be properly cited.


About idmodelsandprocesses

Exploring, reporting, teaching, and advising on learning and communication for the workplace and consumers.
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