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5 examples of document version control

Document version control can help organizations improve their content management strategies if they choose the right approach, like labeling copies and purging old drafts.

Many modern organizations give less thought to document version control than companies did when they initially deployed enterprise content management systems two decades ago.

As most new ECM deployments have moved to cloud environments, version control for document storage has become less of an IT priority. As a result, business priorities drive version control requirements rather than IT teams, although they are directly involved in ECM acquisitions and deployments.

For simple collaborative documents, keeping the last 50 or 500 copies is viable. Yet, organizations often overlook how long they should keep each version and that some iterations are more important than others. Organizations should consider version control as a tool, not simply a feature to enable.

Document version control examples

Content teams can take several approaches to document version control. Each approach corresponds to specific business needs, and organizations often use multiple approaches based on different business requirements.

The following five high-level strategies fit most business cases.

The auto-save balancing act. A basic, incremental versioning scheme makes sense for content that someone still must finalize -- especially content with multiple editors.

Most cloud-based systems permit 50 versions or more. That amount may seem like a lot, but when auto-save continues to create new drafts and collaborators edit the document simultaneously, even 500 copies can occur quickly. Organizations must balance auto-save and version counts to ensure people can retrieve past work.

Iterative documentation. Documentation often has its own versioning scheme or a tie-in to an external numbering system. Employees can use both major -- 1.0, 2.0, etc. -- and minor -- 2.0, 2.1, etc. -- versions to see what iteration correlates with which state of the editing process.

Organizations often use minor versions for iterative drafts, while major versions represent final, approved documents. Afterward, content teams can purge minor copies, which become irrelevant when the major version publishes.

Controlled documentation. For controlled documents, the organization has one official version of a document. Even if one is newer, every other copy is either a draft or a historical record. When an approved version becomes the current one, content teams can place it in a central location, and it becomes the source of truth going forward. Content teams should keep a history of these copies to show when each version was effective if questions about past states arise.

While this approach is like iterative documentation, controlled documentation has a single location for the official version and archives previous official editions. These approaches also differ by the effective date, as published versions remain valid for some time. If content teams know which one was official during a specific time, this versioning can help with audit trails.

A chart that explores five examples of document version control
Organizations won't reap the benefits of version control if they choose the wrong approach for their operations.

Labeling. In this scenario, content teams can label specific versions to represent status and relevance. This approach enables people to find a specific version for a particular state in the editing process.

While "approved," "original" and "current" are obvious labels, other naming conventions may be useful. For example, a team might use "CEO comments" to track a document where the CEO gave specific guidance. Labels can also mark key variations of a document. If an HR policy applies to employees in a specific country, the HR department could label the document to specify that location. Specific labels can ensure content teams don't mistakenly purge useful older documents.

Purge old versions. This example is part of most version control approaches. Old drafts lack value for organizations, and unapproved or unofficial statements risk losing context and causing confusion.

Even for collaborative content, content teams should determine if they must keep all drafts for any time. Organizations can benefit from a strategy to dispose of outdated and unnecessary documents and knowing which older versions to keep. Labeling and major versioning also come into play here. If the ECM system doesn't support those capabilities, content teams can move key versions out of working directories into a published, or archive, location.

Not every type of document can fit into a specific bucket. Sometimes, content teams need a hybrid approach. Yet, when these teams understand the purposes of different document types, they can identify the proper versioning approach.

Questions to ask before deployment

When picking the appropriate document versioning strategy, content teams should ask several questions in advance. Those questions are the following:

  • What goal does the organization want to achieve? Knowing the goal is the most critical step. Sometimes, the goal is to revisit older versions as documents evolve. Other times, organizations want to preserve specific versions.
  • What does the organization's ECM software do by default? Default behavior shows a vendor's plan when it implemented versioning. If the software allows 50 or more versions, the vendor likely plans for collaborative content. Also, versioning for formal processes may require additional effort. Adopting a new ECM service to improve versioning is rarely cost-effective, so content teams should understand their software's features to form a strategy.
  • Where should people look for documents? Content teams must determine where employees should search for official versions and if everyone should have access to drafts. For authorized employees, content teams should keep the search simple.
  • How important are old versions? If old versions have little value after a week or a month, organizations can benefit from a strategy to delete or hide these documents.
  • Can content teams automate the versioning strategy? Content teams may find success with automation. Requiring multiple people to take extra actions and follow specific versioning controls poses risks. People forget, rush and may not see value in taking the extra step. An unfollowed versioning strategy is worse than not having one.

Content teams should fully understand their organization's needs and what resources they already have available. If an organization's current ECM tool cannot meet their needs without significant effort, that tool may not measure up in other ways, like version control.

Teams should also consider the business requirement of different departments to ensure versioning meets everyone's needs and doesn't simply create multiple copies of the same document.

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