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Policy, Process, and Procedure? What’s the difference?

Confused? You won’t be after reading this article.

There’s nothing new about these three terms. We hear them almost daily. These types of documents help us understand how to do things. They provide guidance.

But still, there is confusion. I hear people talking about them, but sense they’re being interpreted differently. People confuse policies with process, processes with procedures and even sometimes procedures with policies.

Whatever the reason, understanding the differences is important. It provides clarity for everyone. Let’s clear things up and start with some simple definitions, followed by some examples.

  • Policy – Guidelines, directives or laws. They drive the processes and procedures.
  • Process – High level activities that fulfill or help achieve the aims of a policy.
  • Procedure – Details and tasks required to action or complete a process.

There's a hierarchy. A policy sets the goal. A process provides the broad steps to get to that goal. The procedure tells us exactly how to complete the process.

Let's look at a simple everyday example. Annual leave.

The Policy

Most companies have some form of HR policy. It's likely most of us haven't given it much thought. It's also possible that your company has a specific leave policy. Either way, the policy will tell us what the deal is with leave. The policy may state something like:

"Full-time staff are entitled to four weeks paid annual leave for every 12 months worked. All staff must have their leave approved by their manager."

The policy provides you the why or what annual leave.  But it doesn't tell you how you go about it.

The Process

Now we get some more information. The process for annual leave might look something like this:

"To apply for annual leave, complete the relevant form and submit this to your manager and wait for approval."

This is the main activity that makes sure we follow the policy. There may even be a simple flow diagram that explains the steps or activity. Actually, these are always a good idea. People generally prefer a diagram to written instructions.

The Procedure

Now we get to the detail. The procedure will tell us exactly how to apply for leave:

  1. Login to the HR system
  2. Click on Annual Leave
  3. Click apply for leave
  4. Complete the relevant details
  5. Click Submit

It might also include screenshots. It could be a page on an Intranet. The point is that it tells us exactly what to do.

What if our company switches over to a new HR system?

Well, the process and policy won't change. We'll still need to get our leave approved. But the procedure may well change. The steps and clicks will be different.

How does this apply to our project work?

Let's look at a very common example. The RFI.

A Request for Information or RFI, is the PROCESS of raising and resolving a question or issue. In Aconex, there are two ways to manage this. Using Mail or Documents Workflows.  

What about the POLICY? Some projects may have one. It might an Information Management Policy, or something similar. It could be a section in the contract.

It may state something like: "All project-related queries must be raised via RFIs."

The POLICY states that we must use RFIs to raise questions. The PROCESS tells us the broad mechanism - Mail or Documents.

The specific tasks and steps are in the PROCEDURE. This helps determine configuration requirements. Along with which features/functionality to use, options, etc.

More information

To get you started, why not check out our Process Library on Support Central. You’ll find common processes and procedure examples, along with information about configuring Aconex to make them work.

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