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Document Management is an Art

By Raghid El-Yafouri, VP, Director of Project Management, Team Detroit

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Raghid El-Yafouri, VP, Director of Project Management, Team Detroit

Document Management Do’s and Don’ts

Documentation is an intellectual property, when properly managed can give businesses an edge and a competitive advantage even when producing or delivering uncompetitive products or services. Documentation make historical references, guiding processes, valued communications and trusted reporting. On the other hand and in many instances, documentation can be nothing more than a collection of inconsistent, irrelevant and inapplicable sets or records. So, what should organizations do to maintain a healthy documentation of their activities? Here are some key observations.

Have a Clear Purpose

Each document produced or needs to be produced should have a well-defined purpose. Key questions should be asked regarding what role a document serves, who its key audience is, what decisions are made from a document, what expectations the audience has from it. Often after answering these questions, different documents are found to have the same purpose and in turn can be combined to reduce redundancy and duplication. Templates of documents should always start with a brief description on what the document is for. Aside from defining the format of a document, templates should include references for guiding the content as well. Each section or header should include directions on how to complete and generate meaningful content. Sometimes having a list of questions to be answered for each section can be very helpful in creating consistency.

"Documentation is an intellectual property, when properly managed can give businesses an edge and a competitive advantage even when producing or delivering uncompetitive products or services"

Know the Building Blocks

It is important to understand that a document is a view of a collection records at a certain date and time. That means that the content of it can come or be fed from other records. At the same time, portions of a document can be needed in another document. This is essential to note because there are documents that can be automatically created and formatted based on connecting different but unique sources. For example, let’s assume a statement of work needs to be created and it should include project objectives, list of deliverables, timeline and cost. The project objectives are probably not being defined for the first time in the statement of work. They were most likely defined in a previously authored document like a creative brief. Thus, that portion of the creative brief needs to make its way into the statement of work. Copying and pasting is one option but it will lead to inconsistent information and discrepancies if both documents continue to develop separately.

Format and Appeal are Key

There are different audiences for different documents. So proper formatting should take into account legibility and ease of navigating content. It is ok sometimes to have multiple variation of document content for different settings as long as the content is not being duplicated, but rather fed into both documents from a single repository. A status report for top management should be formatted differently than a status report for peers or the project team. Yes, the first is a summarized view and a bit higher level but key information like milestones, due dates and overall status should be the same and coming from the same data source.

Keep Ease of Search and Accessibility on Top of Mind

There is nothing more frustrating than knowing that a document that you need to review or reference does exist but it is nowhere to be found, especially if you’re under a time crunch. That happens due to either poor filing or poor naming of the document. Strick naming convention and versioning must be followed. What I mean by this is not simply stating that a document should have a publishing date as part of its name, but rather specifically noting what the format of that name should be. A Document Management Application May Not Be the Answer.

There are hundreds if not thousands of document management systems and applications. None of them can do magic without a pre-defined plan of how documents should be managed, and before setting standards for people to follow regardless of the application selected. A document management application is a tool that does what you tell it to (most of the time). Investing in one without knowing the needs of document management for an agency in general can be disadvantageous. It can give authors and owner of documents a way-out of doing due diligence to properly store a document. Uploading a document to the system is not sufficient without having a common knowledge on where to upload each document, how to name them and how to manage archiving.

Archiving is Not for Saving Older Versions

Archiving is important but what’s more important is knowing what to archive. You never want your archive locations, folders, directories or repositories to be a dumping ground for purposeless documents or documents people don’t know where else to place. It is very easy and convenient to move a version 1 of a document to archive after it has been updated multiple times leading to a version 5. But is this really right? Why keep version 1? Going back to the purpose again, what purpose does version 1 serve now? I can understand if there are two different variations of the document – meaning both have different but equally important information, e.g. SOW A has options X and Y where SOW B covers options X and Z. However, if version 5 now encompasses everything previously recorded in versions 1 through 4 then those previous versions are no longer needed. Maybe keep just one previous version, but the older ones should be purged and not archived.

I say all that to show that document management is an art - ok, maybe that’s a stretch but it can be or will need that aspect. It is clear that any document solution requires proper naming convention, storing repository, archiving mechanism and searching capability. However, when it comes to controlling document clutter, avoiding redundancies and maintaining quality content it does call for reaching beyond the traditional document management guidelines to find scalable and applicable methods to support one’s industry and organizational culture.

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