Software and workflow for an office manual/intranet
September 15, 2022 6:06 PM   Subscribe

I have been tasked with developing a system whereby we can keep office manual type information on an intranet but also have a nicely organized printable document of the same information. I have certain requirements I would like to accomplish, hopefully with either current software we have or free things. Can you suggest how we might use the software we have or what else we might be able to do?

My requirements are to:
- produce one or more PDF documents consisting of an office manual, with chapters, page numbers, table of contents
- include that same information in an intranet, ideally (but not mandatorily) accessible remotely without remoting-in
- keep the two synchronized, not necessarily immediately upon editing but at least once a week
- allow non-tech savvy people to edit the information, without having to go through an intermediary
- ideally, not spend any more money or subscribe to additional services
- ideally, pull in information from csv files (particularly URLs for links to documents in our document management system)
- avoid unnecessary manual processes where possible, or simplify and routinize these

We have access to:
- Office 365 basic package, SharePoint (Plan 1)
- a PDF editor (Power PDF), functions well for combining multiple documents into a bookmarked PDF binder and adding page numbers
- my tech skills which are fairly robust - I feel comfortable learning any software or tools that will facilitate this.

I have various ideas. For one, I have previously used Power Automate to produce a PDF print-out of documents on OneDrive. On the other side, I can imagine a wiki format working to permit office members to edit the information easily, and having the wiki itself be the primary place where information is stored.

I imagine Sharepoint might be best? I haven't used it, but I'm sure I could get the hang.

Looking forward to the helpful advice of the crowd.
posted by lookoutbelow to Technology (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If you have internal information you want kept internal, you are not going to be able to make it accessible 'remotely without remoting-in' because you will lose the ability to authenticate the users who are accessing it.

Should be able to create _one_ thing, a PDF or set of PDFs with links, or a set of HTML pages with links and a way to print them, and avoid syncing. Sooner or later syncing breaks and you end up with the mandatory time-consuming task of figuring out which versions the current one.

Actually this sounds like a wiki. I know there is open-source wiki software, however I have to experience setting one up or doing real editing with one.
posted by TimHare at 6:39 PM on September 15, 2022

We have a talented staff of programmers, but put all of our documentation like that in a Google Shared Drive. Simple to edit for most people, easy to print without extra effort, good search features.
posted by advicepig at 6:39 PM on September 15, 2022 [3 favorites]

Yeah, it departs a bit from what you've outlined, but I installed MediaWiki on an internal server and set up basically the internal "How do I do X?" pages for everything in that wiki. It wasn't great at page layout for printing, but it could be printed if desired. Most people just consulted the wiki on their 2nd monitor while Doing The Thing.
posted by xedrik at 6:41 PM on September 15, 2022

Some advice on a small aspect of your overall plan, the hierarchy. I have seen systems like this break down if it is not clear to users where information would logically be expected to live. So, for instance, would upcoming important deadlines or important dates be in a company calendar, or in separate documents related to the initiatives, or in a document published by the responsible department? And Search (magnifying) glass functionality will just frustrate folks because looking for "Deadline" or "State Audit" will return more than just the specific deadline. Then you end up sending out emails pointing people to places in the intranet, and in 2022 email is the wrong tool for almost everything. For what it's worth.
posted by forthright at 7:15 PM on September 15, 2022 [1 favorite]

I'd like to understand why PDFs are mandatory, because if you can put that part aside, you're describing a wiki.
posted by mhoye at 8:08 PM on September 15, 2022 [1 favorite]

You should be able to accomplish this with SharePoint and Word, which can print to PDF. You can make the Word document editable by a limited number of people but readable by others, and it should be navigable with a standard Word table of contents.

I work for a large organization that is 100% dependent on Microsoft 365 and I deal with permission-limited Word documents all the time, just not in usages like yours, so I can't give more suggestions on how you can make this happen.
posted by lhauser at 8:26 PM on September 15, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: We use Google Docs for this. It's not totally ideal, but it's simple, everyone understands how to edit it (which is not true of a wiki) and you can allow only comments or suggestions for some people, if you don't want everyone to be able to edit directly. People are already signed in to their Google account, so there are no account or password issues. Chapters, TOC and page numbers can be maintained automatically, of course.

The downside is that, even if you set up predefined styles, people will do weird things with formatting or paste in things with differing styles that you might have to clean up. It's also annoying that within the document, you have to click twice on links to get them to open (but that's not a problem in a PDF, of course).

It would be a relatively simple task to set up a Google Apps script that checked each document on a schedule and exported any that have changed since the last check to PDF, saving them in the appropriate location. You could also use an Apps script to pull in data from CSVs.

I imagine you can do similar things in Office online, but don't have enough experience to say definitively.
posted by ssg at 9:26 PM on September 15, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Sharepoint online would work just fine for this. I would check if you have OneNote installed because you can link in your excel csv docs there and the editing and re-arranging is super easy for non tech users.

Microsoft is discouraging wikis in modern sharepoint, but the web pages themselves are easy to set up. If you’re talking about 20-100 pages, make some templates with fixed features for people to use.

Intranets are built two broad ways: a small controlled group of people who collect and organise the content, or a wide group who crowd contribute to the content. You can’t have both control and wide contribution. There is no ‘correct’ way, it’s a company preference that fits your team.

If you control the intranet, I’d opt for tagged web pages for a front page linking or embedding word and excel pages as needed. For a distributed one, push onenote (no versioning though) or pages only and use power automate to bundle them into an editable word doc you can review before it becomes a PDF.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 10:15 PM on September 15, 2022

Best answer: A private MS-Team with all your office people as members and the actual intranet editors as team owners should restrict your intranet from random outsiders if you keep permissions tight - no viewers - on the underlying sharepoint site. That wouldn’t fly at mine but we have mandatory VPN and extra security.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 10:17 PM on September 15, 2022

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone.

For why PDF - I want to have a printable manual style format that can be easily updated. Some people are extremely tech phobic around these parts. It's also a nicer reading experience with bookmarks and links than a word document (if downloaded).

For Word plus SharePoint - is this just having a document library on a SharePoint site? Are there any advantages compared to just having the document on our other document management system?

It seems maybe I should abandon the Intranet part and just focus on the word document(s).
posted by lookoutbelow at 11:37 AM on September 16, 2022

i say get a minimal confluence acct.
posted by j_curiouser at 12:06 PM on September 16, 2022

Best answer: A few things. My documentation experience has two different branches; one old and special, one recent and special. YMMV.

Thirty years ago my first out of university job was generating Standard Operating Practices (SOP) for a quite large manufacturing company. Actually I was a temp on a long term contract to an old retired ex Air Force Documentation Specialist who was contracted to the big company. We had about eight or nine feet of shelves filled with numbered big three ring binders that covered everything. It was before the internet and even early for HTML or web. We used Word templates and styles. Every procedure was only a couple of pages long, written for eighth grade education and very structured just like a military manual. Everything had a Dewey Decimal like Document Identifier like Object IDentifiers. So something like "clear a printer jam" would be 'Office Operations(5).Equipment(3).Printers(6).Brother_123(7).Jam(3)' and the title/metadata of the document would have '' and 'Clearing a Jam'. And it would be in the binder labeled '5', behind the tab '3' (at least). They would be templated to print double sided with room for three holes, either by choice of paper or punching after the fact. They would print with the title and the ID numper plus page number in the appropriate corner. When changes were made... Just take out the old pages and put in the new pages. Very organized. Styles for introductions, task lists, failure modes, yadda yadda. If there's a spill, refer to ''. And well, you can imagine (mostly true) that the printer had a copy of the '' section in one of those like three hole report folders sitting right beside the printer. So did every thing else. Warehouse had a big binder of '7', every place had a copy of '8' because that's the "Accident/First Aid/OSHA" stuff. But it's all really just a big collection of Word documents.

Doing that with HTML or a Wiki, you'll craft a 'print.css' stylesheet or something to get the header/footer/pageID and room for three holes stuff. But make sure the pages have that meta information all taxonomy-ified and short and sweet. Everything in it's place. Then you don't have to worry about things like page numbers.

The recent bit was special because it was 'total disaster recovery'. The principle of Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS) applied. No third-party stuff, no Wiki software stuff.... Just a folder (and subfolders) with an 'index.html' that held everything needed to rebuild things back up far enough to even get internet working and connections back so we could actually make use of those off-site backups and redundancy. It was a bootstrap problem. So things like configurations and network information and passwords and stuff like that. Software, hardware manuals, DNS files, configurations, and the like. Wasn't intended to be printed out all nice like, made to be synced to a big USB stick/SSD/trusted-location.

If there's any sort of real advice in here it's to do the old Air Force Documentation Specialist thing and have a taxonomy figured out and to break things down to short and sweet procedures. You keep control over that. People can edit the procedures as needed, or you can add new procedures/sections and assign a number.

Your 'office manual' is probably much simpler, but probably does need some planning for printing so that the same information ends up in the same place that's flippable to like a dictionary or phone book.
posted by zengargoyle at 12:40 PM on September 16, 2022 [1 favorite]

This is my day job so i was thinking over your question (confluence is basically IMO sharepoint in cooler clothes) and it could all be handled as word docs in a shared library IF only a few people had editorial access and you had a very clear structure plan - the air force example above is a good one.

My sister department just redid their internal documentation, moving from written SOPs to forcing everyone to flowchart their processes with documentation as appendices only. Massive effort but they report a much better experience on-boarding people because flow charts are easier to follow.

TLDR: the tech part is fine, the work will be making good guides. More effort creating simple and clear = happier users.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 4:51 PM on September 16, 2022

Response by poster: "TLDR: the tech part is fine, the work will be making good guides"

Of course! The tech is never truly the thing, the people is the thing.

Thanks again everyone.
posted by lookoutbelow at 7:26 PM on September 16, 2022

I use a wiki for this, and then output the pages to PDF for when those are needed. I actually just finished a project that did exactly this.

A critical detail for those PDF-outputted pages is to have a "page updated" date rendered in the PDF, so that it's clear how current that PDF is. You don't want the date that the PDF was generated (which is what they usually show in the header or printed output) rather when the wiki page itself was edited. It took me a little while (like 20 minutes) to figure out how exactly to get the wiki editor to show that page metadata (automatically updated with every edit, and showing up in the PDF export) but I got it done.

I have a strong, burning hate for Microsoft products that claim to do these things (wiki-like documentation in general), and this absolutely includes Teams, OneNote and OMG especially Sharepoint. Imagine me saying this to you in a trembling voice, seething with anger, looking hard directly into your eyes. Avoid at all costs.

Most recently I used the Atlassion Confluence wiki engine and it was fine.

Oh how I love wikis. And documenting. And frequent incremental edits to improve that documentation :)
posted by intermod at 8:49 PM on September 16, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: For posterity, my overly complicated but pleasing to me solve to this.

I created a list in SharePoint (Microsoft Lists). It is sufficiently friendly to allow the authors and editors of the thing to edit the text there (and supports formatting text). It has fields including:
Draft Body Text
Draft Complete?
Final Body Text
Document Link
Date Updated

Basically whatever is going into the final draft for each section. The chapters are associated with office systems, and the sections with office processes. Bonus project management for my dysfunctional office where people won't even tell me where the draft guides are (months and months later) and it's not clear who's in charge of anything.

I exported the CSV of the list, then put together the HTML from the body text paragraphs and other fields with formulas in Excel, also making chapter and section heading levels. Some of the rich text stuff works on export and some doesn't, sadly - but if I want other stuff in there I can always manually put in the HTML.

Filter sections by chapter and join everything up with text join and line break characters (CHAR(10), my very best friend) into one pile of text in one cell - copy that to HTML file. Open the HTML file in Word, copy to my Word manual template. Export to PDF and split the PDF up into chapters via bookmarks (Power PDF). For the printed binder which is the only way probably half the firm will be accessing this information.

Comes down to 14 steps! And about 5 minutes. Remains to be seen if I can get anyone else to do it, but it's speedy enough that I can just do it and it doesn't need to happen more than every two weeks.

Haven't decided yet on format for intranet but the CSV and HTML will be able to be transferred into whatever.

If some poor soul ever comes across this and wants the Excel file it would warm my obsessive heart.
posted by lookoutbelow at 4:33 PM on September 23, 2022 [1 favorite]

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