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Electronic Manuals: Higher Tech, Higher Value

By Paula M. Powers


Dennis Finneran wants to franchise his successful restaurant business. When he and his restaurant managers review their processes and procedures they find operational inconsistencies among the restaurants.

Mary’s equipment malfunctions. Nobody knows how to fix it. She can’t find the supervisor or the “cut sheets.” Customers are waiting. She races to the back room and stares glassy-eyed at the row of dusty three-ring binders on the shelf. “Where do I begin to look?” she wonders.

Across town a franchisor reviews a recent invoice from his printer. Although his business does well, he must often make operational changes to remain competitive, requiring continual updates to his operations manuals.  He can’t believe the cost of republishing them.

Sound familiar? Franchisors often experience problems such as documenting processes and procedures in preparation for a franchise offering while allowing for individual creativity, organizing essential information so that employees get the information they need when they need it, and cutting costs and increasing profits.

Franchisors find solutions to these problems in technology. For instance, Jennifer DePaola, Director of HR and Training for Ruby’s Diner, says, “We are working toward electronic operations manuals. Our employees grew up with computers and are comfortable with doing searches and getting information electronically.”

This trend toward electronic methods will enable companies to update documentation and training materials more easily and to deliver them via CD, DVD, the Internet or an intranet.  Whether they are building new processes and procedures in preparation for a franchise offering or editing existing manuals, electronic media allows companies to provide information and training whenever or wherever necessary with easier access and greater flexibility.

With the rapid decrease in the cost of electronic media, more prospective and existing franchisors are considering electronic approaches. Phil Crowley, VP of Operations for Lawry’s Restaurants, said, “I have two dozen technology related initiatives on my wish list that will help me build the brand. We want to be more competitive and increase our revenues and profits.”

To successfully migrate existing operations manuals and training materials to electronic media, companies must do more than simply post existing files on an intranet or on a CD. You as a franchising executive must take the following key steps to take full advantage of existing and future technology.


Step 1: Review your existing processes and procedures.

Identify the key processes that are essential to your brand and that will not change. Identify missing information, processes, and procedures that require further development. Look for best practices that will breed success. Matt Plaskoff, President and CEO of Plaskoff Construction and CEO of One Week Bath has learned that you need to “put in place the procedures that you think will work best. Capitalize on the brain trust of potential or existing franchisees. Ask them to participate in the development and fine tuning of operational procedures.  This will minimize changes in the future.” 

Step 1 Output: A list of your existing and missing processes and procedures with the critical ones identified.


Step 2: Develop a Learning Plan – Your Road Map to Success

You now apply the old adage: “If you don’t know where you are going, you will never get there.” You develop a Learning Plan as a way to focus on your business functions, personnel and training issues, identify shortcomings, and PLAN for future business improvements. The Learning Plan ensures that you will meet your business objectives  and is vital to your success!

Review your business plan and your immediate strategic goals and objectives. Referring to the list from Step 1, identify the processes or procedures that will enable you to meet your business plan, goals and objectives more effectively and efficiently.

For example, you want to double the number of units in the next two years. As you review the list from Step 1, you find some “corporate” policies that are not appropriate for franchisees, policies that don’t reflect your process improvements, or manuals that are cumbersome and difficult to reference. Perhaps you need a documented hiring/recruiting process to increase the likelihood that you can locate the quality talent you must hire to produce the additional units. You must evaluate and overhaul your operations manuals before you can make an initial franchise offering or successfully expand. Due to the additional expense of republishing your manuals, you consider electronic versions.

One of your financial goals may be to lower equipment maintenance and repair costs. You find that, because the documentation is not readily available or easy to understand, your employees do not perform scheduled maintenance correctly. Research indicates that short digital video clips of the necessary steps required to repair and maintain an expensive piece of equipment can drastically decrease your expenses, assure consistency in deployment, and add to the profit margin. You find that you can deliver them via DVD, Internet, Intranet, or a hand-held electronic device like a PDA (also called mLearning).  You list that as a an area for further research.

Diane Martell, Director of Training for Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, which has a large international franchise base says, “Electronic methods enable us to change more rapidly. Our paper-based manuals were often obsolete before they were published. For us, distance is an issue. I don’t need as many bodies delivering training when I look at the options offered by eLearning.”

Step 2 Output: A Learning Plan which identifies the missing information, additional areas of concern, actions to be taken, desired media method used, and an implementation schedule


Step 3: Create and edit the information.

You must take this most critical step because the information in your paper-based operations manual is not organized in a manner that works well with electronic delivery. If you upload a duplicate of the paper-based manual, you will not increase its effectiveness, you will just make it cheaper to distribute. Employees who do not use their paper-based operations manual now will not use one on their computer screen in the future.

To get employees to effectively use the new system, you must re-organize the information so that it is easier to locate the required information more quickly than paging through an unwieldy 3-ring binder. Even if you won’t implement an electronic library for another year, you should reorganize the information now.

Start by developing the missing content identified in Step 1. Involve existing and future franchisees to ensure that the documentation will be consistent and timely. Keep all procedures under seven steps in length because lengthy multi-page procedures are cumbersome to use, frustrating to update, and don’t transfer well to electronic methods. Create short “chunks” of information that you can easily organize now and that you can link in the future to “Google” type searches of your electronic library.

As the first step to creating an electronic library, some companies convert their existing Microsoft Word operations manual files to Adobe Acrobat files, which have limited search capabilities. Jennifer DePaola, Director of HR and Training for Ruby’s Diner says, “The problem with the electronic version is that you need to know where to look for the information. Procedures for receiving produce, for example, could be located in the Food and Beverage Manual or the Operations Manual. Organizing information according to its use and linking it to other functional areas should be considered when preparing information for electronic delivery. ”

As you complete the content of your manuals, identify the information that will remain consistent over time (core processes), the information that is likely to change due to automation or electronic systems, and the processes or procedures that are challenging or not well implemented.

Step 3 Output: Completed operations manuals, including all processes and procedures, formatted into smaller chunks.


Step 4: Review Manual Contents, Identify Links, and Tag

(This step is used only if migrating the manual to an electronic library capable of “natural word” searches like Google.)

Review your Learning Plan, in which you identified future electronic methods of delivery for certain content. Review the completed manual to identify the information, processes, or procedures that are repeated or referenced in other parts of the manual or in other manuals such as the produce receiving example referred to in Step Three. Identify processes or procedures that cross functional areas like one that involves accounting to warehouse receiving to accounting again).  These are most likely the sections where you will create links between content areas.

Identify topics, processes, or procedures that you can communicate more effectively by digital video. For example: the maintenance procedure for an expensive piece of equipment now written out in the Equipment Manual might be delivered in the future by digital video. When a competent and experienced IT professional completes the final tagging, you may migrate the information to electronic methods.

Step 4 Output: The operations manual(s) with essential information highlighted or tagged, links between key content identified, and possible locations for future digital video use identified.


Step 5: Migrate to Electronic Media, Creating a Web of Information

Initially you may decide to create Adobe Acrobat versions of your documentation on a DVD and have the franchisee print them out. In the future, tagged manuals could be delivered via DVD and accessed using a web browser with search capabilities. If you have organized the information properly, the next steps, to move the information to a company Intranet, provide more robust searches, and insert useful video clips for key procedures at a later time, will be easy. If you did not create the Learning Plan, you may need to repeat Step 4 when you move to future electronic delivery because you did not identify the content during Step 4.

If you have a company Intranet, you are a step ahead. Take advantage of it by using it as a repository for key information.

Step 5 Output: An efficient, well run franchise with happy, contented franchisees and employees.


In summary, to take advantage of electronic methods you will need to:

  • Review your existing processes and procedures.
  • Develop a Learning Plan
  • Create and edit the information
  • Review manual contents, identify links, and tag
  • Migrate to electronic media, creating a web of information

Adult Learning Theory tells us that adults prefer to use an informal learning environment, require a variety of teaching methods to learn, and are self-directed. An electronic library not only accommodates operations manuals, but can include equipment repair videos, sales information, and methods for capturing best practices. Electronic methods enable you to focus on the face to face skills that employees learn best in a classroom environment.

Processes and procedures delivered in a more efficient and effective way and which follow Adult Learning Theory create more productive employees. More productive employees lead to greater profits and more opportunity for rapid expansion. As Brandon Gough, President of Juice It Up, selected as the 2004 Franchise of the Year by Entrepreneur Magazine, says “using electronic methods is no longer considered ‘nice to have,’ it has become a ‘must have.’ You are not perceived as a professional organization without sophisticated online capabilities.”

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