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What is Version Control & Why Is It Important?

Illustration of people scaling intersecting red ladders on the left side of the drawing while people on the right climb a straight ladder represents simplifying document version control

Does this scenario sound familiar? You’re collaborating with a group of colleagues to update a standard operating procedure (SOP) that will be reviewed and edited by each of you. The document is passed around the office on paper or emailed to each person simultaneously so that they can make changes. There may be one person designated to coordinate the effort, but this informal system can lead to a great deal of confusion.

How can you be certain that you are working on the most current version? Can you figure out who made a change that you’d like to discuss before it’s incorporated into the final document? What if you don’t know how the SOP you’re revising evolved over time? 

That’s when version control, which is also called version management, comes into play. Without it, proving that a document hasn’t been tampered with can be challenging because without the appropriate security measures enforced by version control software, it’s easy to alter digital documents and even easier to conceal who changed them. 


The basics of version control 

What is version control  

Version control tracks changes made to each version of a document. It is a tool that organizes, labels and preserves each draft until a final version is completed. With version control, modifications, who made them and when they occurred are stored in an audit log providing a record of revisions and updates. It is particularly important for documents that require a significant amount of revision, need annual review, or are subject to compliance regulations  

Why is version control important? 

In today’s business environment, the ability to identify what has changed between document versions and make sure users are always distributing or beginning a new revision cycle with the most current one is essential. Document control ensures there is only one master version of each document and that there is a full version history for it. 
Implementing a version control system eliminates the time spent manually opening documents to try to determine which one is the most current. You’ll also avoid incidentally offering or receiving feedback on the wrong document.

How does a version control system work?Yellow light bulb with tangled string underneath it shows how an idea can be coming into being out of chaos

The concepts behind this approach are simple. Once version control is turned on, when an authorized user opens a document to edit it, its status shows as “checked out.” Then the document is read-only for other users.  Every time a document is checked back in, it automatically receives a new version number. When a team member searches for a document, the newest version will automatically be displayed. Version management also provides a clear overview of every step of the revision process.  
When you automate this process with a document management system, you don’t have to sort through an unorganized pile of paper, follow a long email trail or struggle to figure out who authored specific changes.  The name of the editor, what they changed and when they did so is added to the document and becomes part of an audit trail. You can also designate the person in charge of circulating the revised document to a team or through a company.

Getting started with document version control
White coffee cup that says begin

Version control best practices

1.  Create and enforce SOPs 

Consistent version control practices are the backbone of an effective and audit-proof effort. Automated workflow helps by translating your SOPs into functional business practices. 

2. Audit logs are key 

With a comprehensive audit log, you can accurately track all revisions, view the version history and access older versions. 

3. Automate approvals  

Use workflow to email the final document to the stakeholders responsible for approval and track when all approvals are received. Then the document is ready for release. This ensures that sensitive information like HR policies will not be visible to those outside the project team until the document is approved. 

4. Save draft versions 

This preserves a record of the document's development process. For example, you may want insight into why changes were made during the revision. 

5.  Use the comments feature 

Include notes on each version so that it isn’t necessary to open every document version to see what major changes were made. 

6. Create a publishing process 

Once a document is finalized and approved, define how and where it will be released and who can access it. You can determine if a document is published internally or externally, where it is available and what level of security safeguards it. 
Gears of different sizes on a red and blue background represents automation

7. Develop a document retention policy (DRP) 

Your retention policy should specify the retention period for each type of document used in your company. Ensure that your document management procedures meet federal, state and industry regulatory requirements.  
For example, your industry may require that you keep certain documents, like quality control reports, permanently. Documents containing intellectual property, legal documents, business federal tax returns and other financial records subject to internal and external audits must be retained for specific time periods. 
Other laws, acts and agencies that require records retention include the The Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) Act, Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA); the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC); and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). 

8. Use business process automation to enforce your retention policy.  

Keeping track of various retention schedules manually wastes time and resources and has a high probability of introducing human error into the process. Automation ensures that your policies are applied consistently and fully without human intervention. The system provides a comprehensive audit trail, reduces errors and helps you avoid legal issues and fines. 

How version control works in a document management system 

Order and Chaos printed on scrabble tiles

How to use document numbering and naming conventions 

Using a consistent method for naming documents eliminates potential confusion and increases ease of use.  It also helps you identify drafts and distinguish them from final versions. For example:  
  • ABC Company Sexual Harassment Policy Draft v0.1 
  • ABC Company Sexual Harassment Policy Draft v0.2 
  • ABC Company Sexual Harassment Policy v1.0 
  • ABC Company Sexual Harassment Policy v1.1 (note: first revision – minor) 
  • ABC Company Sexual Harassment Policy v1.2 
An automated system will renumber subsequent versions according to the business rules you provide. For example, you may have a policy document that is revised annually. You can set the system to update the version number on January 1 of next year. If you would like to keep previous versions convert them to read-only status to ensure that these documents can no longer be updated.  
As in the example above, use your numbering system to distinguish between minor and major revisions. Major changes usually must be reapproved. You can use automation to flag a document that contains major changes and start the reapproval process. 

The importance of an audit log 

If your company must follow strict quality guidelines and fully document each step in the revision process, the audit log shows how changes are proposed, drafted, reviewed and approved. 
It includes version control tables that provide a record of when and who updated the document. You can include the author, date and a brief note about what changes were made. You might also want to create a document control table that provides the document title, version number, date approved, the previous version it replaces, author(s) name and the date of the next review.  

Dealing with conflict resolution 

Conflicts occur when two or more people change the same file(s) at the same time. A version management software does not allow other people to change a document checked out for revision. It can also be set up to highlight conflicting changes so that they can be resolved before the document is final. 

Real-life application: How version control Improves businesses Hydratech Industries logo and red and silver machine control panel

Case study: Hydratech Industries 

Singapore-based Hydratech Industries specializes in manufacturing high-pressure solutions used in a wide variety of industries, including oil and gas, defense, aerospace and energy. The company develops, manufactures and implements industrial systems throughout Southeast Asia. 
Before DocuWare, files were stored in a simple folder structure. Over the years, countless documents accumulated, especially from R&D, Quality Assurance and Sales, including production documents, technical drawings, email, and contracts – in both English and Chinese. Since each project group organized its own filing system, folder structures and access rights were very different for every team. But even employees from the same department often did not know where to find important documents or which version was the most current.  
Long search times were the order of the day. When documents had to be approved by executives, they were sent back and forth by email. Conversely, team members often only learned that updated documents were available after the fact. 
Using integrated version management is much simpler: If an engineer revises a production plan, for example, the document is first checked out for editing. After completion and check-in, DocuWare forwards the new plan to a project manager for approval. The complete history can always be called up; for example, to determine which changes were made by which colleague at what time. DocuWare workflow emails the entire project team when a significant change is made. 

Support effective collaboration 

With version management, there are fewer errors because employees are always using the latest document version. It also adds another layer of security that protects your company from losing suggested changes and issues caused by accidentally deleting or modifying documents, which are easily restored to a previous version. 
When lots of colleagues edit, annotate and store documents at the same time – it’s easy for chaos to break out. Good intentions won’t stop version management from becoming a free for all at your company. A document management system with robust version control will. 
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