Why is Document Control Important?

chaos: A condition or place of great disorder or confusion. A disorderly mass; a jumble.

Document mismanagement

We have all experienced the enormous frustration of “run-away” documentation, including:

  • multiple copies of documents scattered across various locations on desktops and servers;
  • staff who have moved on without sharing any insight on their “special” document filing systems;
  • cryptic and inconsistent document names that require serious investigative skills to locate and decipher; and,
  • multiple document versions, many with subtle differences, that create a guessing game of knowing which is current and approved.

Unfortunately, it is all too easy to slip into informational chaos. In the initial stages, employees prove surprisingly resourceful and resilient in coping with the problem. As a consequence, it receives minimal or no management visibility and no recognition of its cumulative organizational impact.

As document management grows increasingly difficult, work units and departments will resort to custom and segregated work-arounds thereby creating “information silos“. Documents are redundantly authored resulting in added overhead and document inconsistency.

At some point the document chaos achieves critical mass and management realizes that the growing information mismanagement is creating serious problems. This may include work redundancy and inefficiency, inconsistent and unauthorized communications, and misinformed decision-making.

Many businesses will quickly turn to technology in an effort to solve this problem. Businesses invest major time and dollars in information management projects in an effort to solve the document chaos that they have created. Vendors will champion a variety of document management system solutions, many with impressive functional scope and process automation capabilities.

Unfortunately, technology, or more specifically automation, is not the answer. In many cases, another IT project may only exacerbate the problem, taxing your already over-worked and over-stressed employees.

The root problem is often the absence of any rudimentary document control structure and some relatively simple supporting business processes. For early adopters, document control is easily defined and implemented. For late adopters, organizational discussion and education will be required to build employee awareness, understanding, and buy-in.

Many managers resist document control as they perceive it to be overly bureaucratic – too much “red tape”. In reality, document control requires minimal discipline and a small investment of time, only a few minutes per document.

Document Control Process

The goal of any document control process is to ensure that every document can be identified and located with certainty. Document control is used to track a document’s revision history and to control how document revisions are made, reviewed, authorized, and released.

The basic steps are:

  1. Documents must be uniquely identified. The document number should employ a format embedding the document and revision number.
  2. A master document list must be maintained detailing document number, revision, title, issue and release dates, and owner.
  3. All subsequent document revisions, regardless of how small the change, must be uniquely numbered.  This includes revisions that are circulated for co-authoring, editing, or review.
  4. Document control information must be embedded in the document. This should include the document revision history and approvals.
  5. The document file name should be based on the unique document number.
  6. All documents must be authorized prior to their release.
  7. All released documents must be fully secured, for example, as a password-protected PDF document with no changes allowed.
  8. Every released document must have a corresponding secure master that has been stored in a secure location.
  9. Released documents should be published to a single pre-defined location and not replicated across multiple directories.

A thoughtful and thorough planning process is essential before implementing either a manual or automated document control process. Consult a third party for additional insight and advice on implementing a document control process effectively and save yourself the risk of future document chaos and the many business risks that it creates.