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Why is document version control important?

Although best practices have changed, many organizations lack a suitable versioning strategy. Proper document version control can improve collaboration and fact-checking.

People should no longer have to append their initials or other tags to a document's name to track versions and collaborate. Unfortunately, this method still happens.

While document versioning has progressed significantly over the past few decades, many organizations still have gaps in how they manage versioning. While useful to streamline work, the changes over time have let organizations fall into bad version control habits. Organizations must embrace proper version control to maximize their content management system's potential.

What is document version control?

Document version control is a planned versioning strategy. When all enterprise content management (ECM) tools ran on premises, versioning was a conscious choice. Content teams had to balance revision tracking with storage limitations and business requirements, so everyone knew what versions were kept.

In the modern cloud-based ECM world, organizations worry less about storage. Versioning has become automatic and hidden from view. While most cloud content management providers offer some default degree of versioning, they may lack structure, so it's not truly version control. Keeping the last 50 copies of a document is versioning, but it is far from a version control strategy.

However, content teams should not introduce complexity. Version control works best when people know they have it and can use it without slowing down. Versioning strategies must fit seamlessly with how an organization conducts business while meeting regulatory compliance requirements.

Organizations need versioning because everybody makes mistakes. With proper control, employees can undo those mistakes.

Why do organizations need document version control?

Organizations need versioning because everybody makes mistakes. With proper control, employees can undo those mistakes. Proper version control offers the following benefits:

  • Collaboration. Proper version control strategies can track multiple people's contributions. When collaborating and editing, employees could search, find and edit something another editor changed.
  • Denotes official and draft content. When dealing with policies and guidelines, employees can find official versions that span back years and drafts from revision processes. The latest version may not be the most recently approved, and proper version control can help employees distinguish between drafts and approved content.
  • See past standards. Employees should know which document version was current when an action occurred. If an action from a year ago goes against current policy, employees can refer to an older version to reveal if it went against policy then, too. Content teams must track and maintain approved versions for these scenarios and any associated regulatory compliance.

Despite version control's benefits, it still poses challenges for the everyday content creator. Key challenges include the following:

  • Storage. Even in cloud environments, storage has limits and costs. Rules for how long employees should keep old versions can help manage these costs.
  • Management. The more versions an organization stores, the more effort it requires to manage each document iteration. Some organizations may automate version control, which comes more easily when organizations plan it from the start. Planning also sets employee expectations of system behavior, reducing management complications when that change occurs.
  • Complexity. Too little or too much control can create challenges. Employees need simple versioning to understand and use it well. No matter the approach, improper communication creates confusion.

Tips for managing document version control

To properly manage version control, content teams must fully understand the organization's needs. To determine the best version control implementation strategy, content teams should ask the following questions:

  • Does the content get published as multiple versions over time or only once?
  • How long should employees keep document drafts?
  • How can content teams communicate how versioning helps overall productivity?

When planning how to manage versions, content teams shouldn't treat all content the same. Many individuals handle distinct sets of content daily, but every group in the organization handles different types of content. Version control strategies should take these differences into account.

Content teams should also understand their current situation. If an organization uses a cloud-based content management system (CMS), versioning is likely already happening. Typically, that means every save generates a new version. If the CMS automatically saves documents, organizations have a lot of versions saved. Additionally, the CMS may drop some important versions because of how frequently people save their changes.

No organization needs 50 versions of a document -- at least, not weeks after employees created them. For each type of content, content teams should look at how the organization currently manages documents and what steps people take to meet their versioning needs. Documenting those needs can help content teams craft version control strategies that work.

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