Document Control: A Guide for Small Businesses

Document control can enhance your company's efficiency, quality, and security. Find out how to implement document control in your small business.

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I was recently reminded how much our tools shape our habits when I exited a Word file without saving my updates.

I blew straight past the "Are you sure?" message and clicked without thinking because I'd grown so accustomed to working in Google Docs, which saves everything for me and even lets me review and restore prior versions.

In a business with multiple applications generating content and different teams sharing and changing them, mistakes are inevitable. In businesses such as construction, those errors can be downright dangerous. But in any small business, lack of a document control program can damage productivity, quality, and efficiency.

That's why every business needs document control processes for critical documents.

Overview: What is a document control system?

A document control system is a process for approving documents, updating them as needed, tracking changes, ensuring version control, managing access, and archiving obsolete documents.

Document control management is especially important for businesses that rely on documents that change frequently and industries where precision and accuracy are paramount such as architecture, construction, manufacturing, and engineering.

It’s also a standard of quality management systems (QMS) under International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 9001.

Organizations with complex documentation may want to employ a document control specialist to manage their programs.

Document control vs. document management: What's the difference?

Document management (DM) and document control are both records management systems for an organization's documents throughout their life cycles, from receipt or generation to disposal.

However, document control is a much narrower field focused on managing changing versions of critical documents to ensure accurate, up-to-date information at all access points.

Benefits of implementing a document control system

A quality document control system is built on document management best practices to help your business work better and smarter, and there are several benefits.

1. Efficiency

Documents often live in multiple applications and locations. Document control organizes and tracks your documents for easy access by employees who need them. It also manages content through workflows and systems to reduce redundancy. This saves employees time looking for documents and checking their validity.

2. Consistency

Document control ensures your employees are all working from the same documents and standards, which can prevent massive headaches.

For example, say you change your vacation policy and update your handbook. Your recruiter isn't alerted to the change and has two new hires sign the prior handbook. You now have to decide whether to honor the prior terms or ask them to sign the updated handbook. Either way, you're off to a rocky start.

3. Quality

Version control is the very heart of a document control system. Document control manages access, tracks revisions, prevents changes by unauthorized staff, and orders versions to ensure that all employees are always working with the latest information.

This is critical to managing quality. In a retail business, that might prevent a customer from ordering an item that's no longer available. In construction, it might prevent a team from working from an out-of-date drawing set.

4. Security

Most businesses work with sensitive data, from employee records to credit card information to proprietary company data. Document control establishes security protocols to protect private information from unauthorized access.

This can include everything from external attacks on your servers to employees sending sensitive documents through email.

5. Compliance

Your business must be able to produce certain documents on demand, whether you're answering a complaint or responding to an audit. You also need to meet document retention standards of authorities such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

A document control system ensures you meet regulatory requirements.

Screenshot of the M-Files document search bar

M-Files organizes your content and automates workflows for easy document management. Source: M-Files.

How to start a document control system

Follow these six steps to create a document control system for your business.

Step 1: Identify documents and workflows

The first step is to identify all the documents your system will contain. Depending on your company size, you might need to delegate this step to team leaders.

Document control is a more rigorous process than document management, and it may not be required for all your company documents. Focus on documents that change frequently, contain critical information, or have legal significance.

Create workflows covering the life cycle of each document, from initial release through use points and disposal. Who uses this document, where does it live? Is it evergreen, or will it require periodic updates? How long will you retain it? Will it be archived or destroyed?

Step 2: Establish ownership and quality standards

Next, consider the document's creation and oversight. Who has the authority to approve and release it? For instance, price sheets might require sign-off by the sales manager before being released.

Also document any quality standards that apply to your content. For example, when creating a standard operating procedure (SOP), must it be tested before release? Do some documents require executive or legal review?

Step 3: Name and classify documents

Naming and classifying documents systematically is critical to efficient document storage and retrieval.

For example, say you keep quarterly sales reports on a shared drive for all staff. Having a consistent naming convention, such as "Q1 2020 Performance - Staff," with only the quarter and year changing over time, makes it much easier for employees to find the documents.

Document management systems such as M-Files or Microsoft SharePoint enable you to classify documents, retrieve them using metadata, and automate document workflows.

Some DM solutions will tag and organize files for you. Be consistent with metadata just as you are with file naming for efficient document management and effective control.

Screenshot of Microsoft SharePoint's security policy creation function with custom policy template

Microsoft SharePoint features data loss protection tools to help you protect sensitive data and meet regulatory requirements. Source: SharePoint.

Step 4: Create revision protocols

Another purpose of documentation control is to prescribe guidelines for document review and revision. This can be done during periodic audits or as changes occur.

Generally, it's best to have the staff member or team that released a document oversee and approve future revisions.

Keep a checklist or spreadsheet of all revisions, including the document name, responsible staff members, review dates, and descriptions of any changes.

You can prevent users from changing documents by saving final versions in a read-only format or controlling user permissions.

Step 5: Manage security and access

Your document control system should be built with security in mind. This includes controlling access to physical files, shared drives, and applications to protect sensitive data. It also includes system security and automatic documents backup.

Document control further requires ensuring access and legibility of documents at each point of use. For some documents, this may require maintaining copies of paper and electronic documents. For example, workers on a shop floor or a job site may need physical copies of documents stored electronically elsewhere.

Step 6: Classify and archive documents to ensure version control

Obsolete documents should be archived or destroyed on schedule. This may include physically separating obsolete paper documents or moving documents to inactive folders.

Once again, a consistent file naming system and metatags can help users identify obsolete files. Consider a naming convention that puts "obsolete" or "archive" ahead of the usual file name so its status is unmistakable.

Sensitive files may require shredding, while archived records may require long-term paper documents storage.

Control is power

Putting together a sustainable document control system yields more than control over your documents. It gives you power over the information and workflows that drive your business. You'll see the returns in greater quality, efficiency, and security for your business long into the future.

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Teresa Kersten, an employee of LinkedIn, a Microsoft subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Microsoft. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.