What Is Document Control (And How to Implement It)?

If you’re like many other organizations, you probably have a large library of documents containing things like standard operating procedures (SOPs), certificates, contracts, spreadsheets, business plans, reports, and much more. As your business scales, the process of maintaining these documents only becomes more difficult.

Not everyone needs access to every document — but what if someone does? How do you know who is allowed to access certain information in your organization? Who manages those permissions? If someone doesn’t have the permission they need, do they know how to get it? Are your documents protected against security breaches?

Document control is one of the most important processes for any organization, but it involves more than just access and permissions management. It’s an entire philosophy of organization, efficiency, and procedure built to streamline the process of providing employees what they need — and it’s essential to productive and efficient work.

That said, without the right tools, a document control philosophy won’t help your team very much. Your organization will need robust software to create, organize, and manage documents efficiently. Human capital management (HCM) software is built to help HR teams maintain document quality and manage access in an orderly and professional fashion.

Let’s take a look at how document control works and what it might look like for your organization:

What is Document Control?

In general, document control is a holistic process and corporate philosophy defining the management of all documents. This means establishing creation and publishing standards for new documents, setting permissions for who can edit or view them, and even document disposal procedures. The document control process also involves updating documents with current information and formats.

Organized System of Document Ownership

For document control to be successful, your team will need to set up a document “life cycle” with specific stages. This is also known as a chain of custody for the document.

Here’s an example:

  • A document is written by someone (in this case, an internal training document). They are the current owner of the document. They may solicit feedback or comments from their manager or coworkers. But they still retain ownership of the document.
  • Once the document has been approved and edited, ownership of the document may transfer to their management. From here, a structured system of approvals and revisions will take place. The document’s author should have a clear idea of who will receive the document next and/or give feedback about it before it is published to the correct database.
  • The document then enters the company’s internal knowledge bank. Credit is given to the document’s original author, and there is a clear audit trail where readers can read past versions of the document (as relevant to their needs). There is also a clear recording of who edited what part of the document and when.
  • Regular updates and audits keep the content relevant for its section and purpose. If the document is “living” and requires regular updates, each round is recorded and takes place at regular intervals.
  • If the information outlined in the document becomes obsolete, the document may be retired from the knowledge base. It can be retired to a file designated for archival purposes, or it can be deleted and erased according to the company’s outlined document destruction procedure.

It should not be difficult to track down a document within an organization — if it isn’t up for review, it should be organized into its appropriate place. That place should be within a larger taxonomy, complete with intuitive categories of classification. If you have insight into how employees access documents on a daily basis, draw up the taxonomy to reflect use patterns and ensure that the most frequently used documents are easy to locate.

System for Document Creation and Destruction

Document control also encompasses ideas like document creation and safe, ethical disposal of documents. Setting alarms or “triggers” for when a document reaches a certain stage of review can help move things along in the system and ensure that things don’t get lost. But things are also much easier if a document goes missing when there’s a document control system in place. If someone knows the last stage a document was in before going missing and where it was last intended to go, it’s much easier to infer its current location.

Security Procedures for Documents Across the Organization

If there is a formal document life cycle in place, employees will know exactly what to do with something that is confidential, originally external, or outdated. Permissions control also becomes much easier to maintain. A document controller is charged with delegating permissions for various documents and files, making sure that former employees of teams or even the entire organization don’t continue to have access to confidential information. HCM systems can include features that drastically streamline this process.

Document control is a culture of safety and security around documents. Security must also be guaranteed. Documents should be encrypted if at all possible.

Document Control Across Industries

Any industry that requires multiple layers of confidentiality or needs to keep a robust record system for later review will greatly benefit from a formal document control system. Some examples include:

  • Construction: Document control is important in industries like construction, where permits may be required for sites, there may be requirements for working with different unions, and making frequent copies may be necessary during certain periods. If everyone in an organization can communicate about documents and shared information using the same system, there is more possibility for collaboration between departments than ever. You won’t have to learn an entirely new organizational system just to help someone track down a document or request a signature from someone in another department.
  • Legal/Financial: Law firms and financial advising firms, like many other organizations, benefit greatly from a document control system because it produces a useful trail for audits. In these cases, there may be hundreds of documents that go in and out of a single organization’s system on a daily basis. It’s easy to track updates if everyone knows exactly what to do when handling a document inside the firm.
  • Healthcare: Having a formal system for granting document permissions will be helpful for any organization where HIPAA compliance is a must. Hospitals also have documents that require frequent updates. This might include standard procedures, contact information for clients, schedules for employees or events, or something else as part of a larger system of document control.

How To Implement Document Control

Implementing a document control process from scratch comes with several challenges. In order to minimize pushback from employees and save time, here are some steps you can take:

Assign a Dedicated Document Controller

You may consider hiring or internally naming a document controller for your organization. Depending on workload, this may also be an ideal task for an office manager seeking a chance to expand their skill set. Having an assigned employee to monitor the process and be on hand to solve problems with human logic may be the missing piece to implementing document control in your organization.

Establish Your HCM and Take Inventory of Documents

Take a full inventory of the paperwork and files that need to be organized. If you have an official HCM set up, this will be an important tool to utilize at this stage.

Take note of patterns that emerge as you catalog and organize things. Are there certain documents that are in unexpectedly frequent use? Do employees forget to rescind permissions after a certain time period?

Do not attempt to resolve these problems just yet. Take note and record them. The information will come in handy when you write procedures later.

Create an Official System of Document Creation

This may seem like an extra step, or unnecessary in the larger scheme of things. But it’s important when streamlining documentation to establish standards for initial document creation. Employees should know who can monitor the document, who has editing privileges at what stage, and even the preferred document layout.

These details may not seem important. But the less guesswork you bring to document creation, the easier it will be to onboard new employees or find flaws in the overall system.

Establish a Document’s “Life Cycle”

By now, you should have all the information you need for a document taxonomy, as well as a procedure for obtaining document access permissions and sharing. The path should be predictable. If something goes missing, you should be able to track down where in the life cycle it was lost and where it is most likely to be based on its previous stage.

It’s important to include permissions gathering in the documentation of this process. Assess which documents facilitate frequent access or transference between people. It’s important to set procedures for recording changes to documents, as well as how permission is solicited and granted. Criterion is designed to record this for this specific purpose.

There should be a procedure in place if a document requires approval or signatures (especially regarding HIPAA compliance and similar measures). If your office controls and stores very specific types of documents (such as prototypes or initial sketchings of projects) or frequently solicits signatures from clients/customers, a reliable HCM becomes even more important.

Create a Distribution Matrix

In essence, a distribution matrix is a formal list of who gets what document when (and how) within the document’s life cycle. It holds everyone’s preferred method of communication and level of security clearance.

For example, if every paycheck needs to be approved by a very specific person within the accounting department before being considered official, that person should be mentioned in that document’s life cycle. It should list their preferred method of contact, to ensure that anyone who doesn’t receive their paycheck on time can reach out and ask if it’s with them.

This matrix also features information about who in the organization should receive a paper copy of a certain document. Not everyone needs or prefers digital access to documents. Ideally, it should be easy to find contact information for someone within your organization and know exactly how to give them what they need.

Train Your Employees On Your New Process

Once all the documents have been transferred and organized, it’s essential to train employees on the new system as soon as possible so work is not disrupted during the process. Write up a standard operating procedure document (SOP) and use it to train employees on what to do within the process to serve their needs and obtain the materials they need to work efficiently.

Revise Your Document Control Process

You may find that after the implementation process, your document control system may be lacking or inefficient in areas you didn’t expect. It’s expected that some fine-tuning will take place after the launch period. Stay communicative with your team and keep them in the loop about the new changes and how they will be affected. Annual or semi-annual audits of your system are highly recommended. You’ll be able to evaluate the effectiveness of the system itself and how your employees use it (i.e. if they’re following the procedure or if they use another course of action because they find it more effective).

Possible Obstacles When Implementing Document Control

With any new strategy you implement with your business, there are bound to be roadblocks. Here are some potential obstacles for implementing document control within your organization:

Resistance From Employees

Many people within your organization may not understand the long-term benefits of document control. There may be hesitancy to adapt or modify the current system of organization (especially if work continues during the transition to the new system).

To help mitigate this, explain that the new system will be designed to streamline procedure and will eventually make everyone’s jobs easier in the long run.

Transition Time

People may have concerns about digital carryover of documents. It might seem like it’ll take forever to integrate the sheer number of documents in your company to a new system. There may even be inconsistencies of access for a certain time during the transition. But the upfront time investment is well worth the benefits of having a fully integrated documentation system.

When coming up with the plan for implementations, note what documents are used most frequently in your organization and plan accordingly to make sure those are accessible.

Inefficient Existing Systems

Having an inefficient system of permissions can lead to horrible consequences, such as lingering permissions for ex-employees. If you need your documents to be HIPAA-compliant or adhere to similar standards, not having a document control system is a guarantee that some documents will slip through the cracks. You also need to be able to find anything you need. Transitioning to a document control system can highlight or exacerbate these problems (which may convince employees of the necessity of a document control system at all).

A well-designed HCM can be a crucial help during document control transfers. If possible, select an HCM that can merge with your pre-existing tools so employees can still access what they need during the workday even as the transfer takes place. It can also come in handy when merging systems and managing accesses.

Criterion: Your Customizable Document Control System

Document control is in many ways a necessary security measure within an organization. But more than this, it is essential to stay productive and maintain the materials your employees use every day. When you’re able to track who needs what and when, you can deliver necessary information in a timely manner. Document locations and access shouldn’t be something you need to think about — and an established document control system makes that happen.

Criterion can help you track “view” data for your individual documents. There is always a record of who has access and who last opened or edited an individual document. It’s easy to implement a new system when you have the tools to gather accurate data about how your employees use your system.

Criterion’s HCM platform was built by HR experts to solve your biggest organizational challenges. You can enjoy the benefits of a well-organized, easy-to-use interface that serves your employees at every level, with enterprise-level functionality and security driving the whole system. It’s made by pros that know what you need most.

Book your Criterion demo today and learn how you can customize and streamline your document control system for greater efficiency and security.

Steve Tompkins
Steve Tompkins is an HCM Solutions Consultant at Criterion HCM and is located in San Diego, California.
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