Protocol and procedures may seem synonymous, but they are really not. Developing either or both first requires understanding their differences, as well as knowing the definition of other P words, such as policies and practices. Understanding these terms will simplify the development of protocol and procedures for your organization.

Understanding the Four Ps

In many instances, the definition of protocol is a practice or a set of guidelines intended to support procedures, and a procedure is a collection of steps or processes for completing a task. Practices, on the other hand, are probably more akin to protocol because a practice is something that you customarily do to carry out a task. The most formal of all these words is policies, which typically are formal rules or even regulations that underlie processes.

Examples of Protocols

Whether or not they actually call it protocol, many organizations have certain unwritten guidelines. For example, the military hierarchy system dictates protocol for addressing various officer ranks, such as a lower-rank military service member is required to salute a high-ranking officer. Or, in the civilian world, the custom of a man standing to greet a woman may be considered proper etiquette or protocol, depending on the setting.

Princeton University's Outdoor Action Program defines protocol as what is "proper and correct in official dealings," or a "set of rules governing the communication or transfer of data." In the health care industry, formal protocol is described as a best practice or the recommended course of action for delivering specific types of care.

How to Develop Protocol 

A needs assessment is the first step in protocol development. If you are documenting a practice that your organization should adopt, you should first examine why the protocol is necessary and identify the specific area of business that will benefit from it. If there are existing processes that will support the protocol, review those and determine whether they are truly applicable.

For example, if you are developing protocol for handling sales transactions that exceed, say, $1 million, review the basic steps for all sales transactions. For high-value transactions, it is likely the steps for all sales transactions will be applicable, and your protocol will include additional steps for approving and closing the sale.

In addition, your protocol might include client-focused practices that are not necessarily steps in the sales process, such as adding the client to an internal list of valued customers, assigning the most senior representative to handle that customer's calls or the sales manager writing a personal note to the customer to show appreciation for the business. Another form of protocol in this instance may include briefing the company president on high-value sales.

If you are compiling written protocols, outline these steps and ensure your staff understands when the protocol applies and to whom. In the early development of your company's protocol, periodically evaluate when your staff is appropriately and correctly using protocol, and ask for feedback about what works and what does not. Continually refining protocol can ensure that you are sustaining the quality of performance that will benefit your company's business reputation and its bottom line.

Examples of Procedures

Procedures are the steps required to complete a task, such as first checking to ensure the customer's name and point of contact are correctly entered in your sales database before accepting product or service orders. Generally speaking, procedures consist of several steps instead of just one action.

For example, your sales transactions may require verifying customer information, checking stock for the requested products or the availability of service staff, scheduling delivery, creating and transmitting an invoice, and confirming receipt of the product with a post-sale communication, via email or telephone call.

How to Develop Procedure 

Developing procedures may involve getting input from anyone in your company who is responsible for the task. For sales transactions, you might include the call-taker or company receptionist and determine what he does to appropriately direct calls, or ask the sales agent how she documents customers' requests, including the forms necessary to accurately tracking customer orders. For customer requests for service, there could be a tracking method or calendar that must be accessible to all staff involved in the process. These are the steps necessary to complete a sale.

Documenting procedures is critical for several reasons, one of which is to ensure consistency in service delivery. When you have written procedures, they are easily accessible and may be included in onboarding and new-employee orientation, as well as ongoing staff training. Again, procedures should be reviewed and refined as necessary. Procedures may need updating based on technology that supports your company transactions or staffing changes and assignment of duties.