Version Control for Document Authors

For employees whose job dictates that they regularly create new documents, having access to an intuitive and easy to use version control system is a major advantage. Early in my career I distinctly remember the struggles I experienced creating specification documents, training guides, and other business related documentation. Authoring the content was challenging enough, but the issues were compounded by the processes associated with saving revisions, routing the documents for approvals, and distributing the final version to the intended recipients.

Version control is defined by Wikipedia as “the management of multiple revisions of the same unit of information.” While that definition is accurate, I think my brother put it best when he said “version control is akin to having unlimited edit-undo.” When creating documents using a version control system, the author has the capability of recording snapshots of their document at any point in the document lifecycle. This permits the author to lock in a version of the document for historical purposes that can be referenced later in the development cycle. Having access to snapshots of the document is especially helpful when the author needs to rewrite or remove a section of a document. Prior to working with a document management system, I am embarrassed to admit to the number of times I removed entire sections of a document without saving off a version of the file. Deleting sections from a document inevitably leads to rework and it did for me countless times.

The symptoms of a business needing a version control system are easy to recognize. The primary symptom is when users have file names saved with special extensions detailing the file version’s “something” (date, editor’s initials, or internal revision number). Experienced document authors compensate for not having a document management system by developing their own naming conventions for each document revision. As a result, their ‘My Documents’ folder is littered with countless revisions of documents using specialized file naming conventions such as filename – date – revision.ext. Modifying file names can partially address the individual author’s version control needs, but invariably leads to wide-scale confusion across an organization. The confusion is exacerbated when versions of files are emailed to others in the organization responsible for editing and/or approving the documents. Often the email recipients save a local copy of the file using yet another naming standard before performing their edits. When the files are returned, the original author now has a trail of dissimilar named files that require manual consolidation and cannot be easily audited.

In engineering and software departments, version control systems have been commonly used for decades. One Tree Software, in the early 1990s, developed the most prolific version control system for application engineers called ‘SourceSafe’ for Windows. One Tree Software was subsequently purchased by Microsoft and the SourceSafe application became integrated as part of Microsoft Visual Studio (Microsoft’s software development application suite) since 1995. Visual SourceSafe (VSS) became a widely adopted tool for managing versions of source code files, but never gained popularity with users outside of the engineering and software development teams.

The document management industry recognized the benefits that engineers were experiencing with version control and sought to bring equivalent functionality to the rest of the business community. Before that vision would be realized, a new breed of intuitive, integrated document management system needed to be developed that supported how document creators produced content. Business users required the essential version control features that engineers had come to expect such as saving revisions of documents, notes for detailing specific versions of the file, and the capability to promote historical versions of a file. However unlike the engineers, the business users also demanded advanced document management functionality including integration into Microsoft Office and Adobe Acrobat applications, electronic workflow for routing documents, electronic review and approval, digital signatures, document retention schedules, and profiling with metadata indexing.

Today business users have the opportunity to deploy a document management system that provides their users with robust version control functionality. Document creators from diverse industries gain notable efficiencies by utilizing a version control system for maintaining revisions of their documents. The benefits they realize include having access to all historical data associated with the document being generated, a complete document log detailing who and when a document was accessed, and the assurance that all of the versions of the document are stacked in the document’s version history and not concealed through varied naming standards. Can your organization afford not to provide your document authors with the tools they need to efficiently and confidently create the documents that drive your organization?

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