Document Control

Why is document control so difficult for many organisations?  It’s often lacking for crucial documents or so strictly regulated that people who need documents struggle to get access when and where they need them.  The principle is that people should have sufficiently accurate information to meet their responsibilities – yet organisations tie themselves (and their staff) in knots over it.

Before IT, shared drives and intranets were so pervasive, it often came down to a document controller (or, for large organisations, a document control department) to manage and oversee the updating and distribution of (printed) documents.  As computerisation took over, the document control departments withered and document controllers took on other tasks – everything goes on the network and it’s up to each individual to check he/she is using the correct version.  This often means them printing off their own “uncontrolled” copy – something that, if we follow the strict definitions, they should not now use.

Auditors will pounce on these “uncontrolled” copies, even though the individual holding onto them uses it on a regular basis.  Management system documents are often the ones with strictest control, yet the majority of changes that might mean a printed copy is out of date are irrelevant to the task in hand.  The argument given is that the changes could be critical – so I have to ask, why rely on a system with known flaws – if a change is critical, let people know and get their engagement in the change!

Technical standards and specifications usually have a greater need for control but, then, the system insists only the latest version can be available and is incapable of managing the older versions that may be needed for reference.  Try proving after-sales service on a product when the documentation to which it was made has been updated…

And contract documents,  in particular, those provided by customers.  I frequently find these lie outside the organisation’s formal document control system, instead relying on communication between sales, engineering, manufacturing and service departments – good control of these are essential.  In most cases, the informal system works suggesting, to me, it might actually be a clue to a better way.

When an organisation shows me its “document control system”  I regularly find it’s a compromise – often written to address the perceived needs of management system documentation (“perceived” because, in reality, it’s not those documents that need the level of control being imposed), often a better fit for technical standards (though not quite there) and misses the need of contract/client documents.  It works, though – not because of grand design but because people make it work through “creative application”.  People responsible for a task, if properly trained and competent, know what is needed and, most of the time, won’t let the system get in the way of them doing a good job.

(Posted as a blog 5th January 2012)