Effective document version control

Help your teams establish a working version control system that will ensure they're always working with the most up-to-date versions of their files.

Working with version control

Teams in organisations today collaborate across departments, offices, borders and time zones – all while working from the same set of documents. Despite how common this setup is, these same teams still often struggle to manage the many different versions of their work files. How many documents labelled 'FINAL' are swiftly followed by 'FINAL V2'? If your team is losing time locating the most recent files and tracking changes, establishing a proper version control system may be long overdue.

So, what exactly is version control?

Version control is the process of managing different versions of files over time, which is typically done using a version control system. While they may have originally appeared in software development to manage changes to code, version control systems aren’t as complicated as they sound. It could simply be software that tracks changes and allows you to access all previous versions of a file at any time. A version control system could also be a set of rules for working with files, such as a folder architecture to store different versions separately.

These various uses go far beyond creating code; for example, document version control could help a writer manage different drafts of content or a graphic designer track the changes made to a design file.

How to create a document management system with version control

There are a variety of approaches to version control that you can take, depending on the needs of your team and the size of your organisation. Most people will simply tell someone what version of a file they’re sending or label documents with initials or 'reviewed'. Everyone labels documents differently, so this approach can quickly become confused when just two people are working together – let alone a larger team or organisation. When it gets to this point, a defined approach is needed to manage a team’s files.

Naming conventions

It may seem obvious, but having a rigorous naming convention that your team follows is essential to version control. For starters, a naming convention must be consistent, and it must be clear to anyone accessing your files. However, it should also be based on how your team interacts with those files. If, for example, the dating of documents is the most important factor to your team in organising them, then file names should begin with a date. This would be the most common way that you will filter and search through those documents for your team. From there, file names should include the most significant pieces of information to understand what is in the document. Of course, if you’re going to use a naming convention alone as your version control system, then it also must include a numbering system for different file versions, too.

Information architecture

Once you’ve established a method of labelling your documents that works for your team, you need a readily accessible system for storing them securely. That’s where information architecture comes in, which is simply the layout of the folders and files that you use to store information. Naturally, naming convention also plays a big role here – there’s no use in having strictly organised file names if they’re in a folder titled 'Work'. However, information architecture is also a matter of who has access to those files, because not every file should be available to every member of your organisation.

The best way to handle this is typically via a shared file storage solution. Team folders in Dropbox Business let you create a secure information architecture. By assigning specific teams within Dropbox, you can then create repositories for their work with specific access permissions for people inside and outside of the team. From there, you can ensure that files aren’t changed without permission and different versions of files can be archived securely.

Version control software

Naming conventions and information architecture are the cornerstones of a successful document management system. However, they can also become time-consuming when they’re used as a main method of version control. Version control software automates many processes around version control and provides added benefits that naming conventions alone can’t offer.

At the very least, version control software automatically stores every previous version of a file. This can then be accessed or reverted to at any point and also serves as a backup for the current version of the file. Team members can also work concurrently on separate files with version control software before updating to the current version. This makes it simple to merge changes and resolve any file conflicts.

In a nutshell: version control software simplifies the whole process of file versioning and provides added benefits to teams working with those files.

Why is version control so important for teams?

When it comes to working on collaborative documents, having some form of version control is essential to being aligned on a piece of work. To sign off a completed document, you have to know which file is the final version after all, but it goes far beyond that. Using the right software and versioning files properly can safeguard against time loss and accelerate processes in organisations of all sizes.

Retain every different version of a file

The core benefit of version control is being able to retain every single version of a file throughout a project workflow – from start to finish. You can check for differences between versions and ensure that all changes made are settled. You should be certain that what makes it into the final version is final and that it wasn’t added at 1 a.m. the night before.

Once a project is complete, version history can also be crucial when reviewing your team’s work in hindsight. In this case, document version control can serve as an audit trail of your teams’ work during a project, detailing their progress at every stage. Armed with that info, you can better diagnose issues in your processes, especially when it comes to how you can streamline your work in future.

Secure file handling and editing

Nothing delays work in a team more than someone overwriting a file without permission – or deleting a file accidentally. From that point, there’s nothing you can do other than trawl through your emails hoping to find a copy of the original file. Rather than hoping you find it, you can count on having a backup at your disposal because version control systems will retain a version of the file at every stage of change. With Dropbox file recovery, if a team member wrongly makes changes or deletes a file, a previous version is always available should you need to revert back to it. You never have to worry that a file will disappear or permanent changes will be made.

Monitor changes from team members

When you have a large team working together, it’s imperative that you know who’s made changes to what, and when. Shared documents typically include details as to who most recently edited the document, but it may not include any other team members on the file. In this instance, it’s not long before you’re wasting time emailing around to ask who reviewed the file and what edits they made.

Fingerprinting file changes and different versions of a document to a team member is where you need version control software. Using version control in Dropbox for example, all file changes will be visible and directly associated with a team member’s email and account. You’ll receive notifications whenever someone edits a file – showing exactly what was changed – or if they move or delete a file in a shared folder.

This level of version control creates a more transparent process for managing your files as well as accountability for those files. You can see when members of your team begin working on a file or if something is changed wrongly or accidentally. Any file changes can be immediately checked with the relevant person without any awkward emails alerting the whole team in Slack.

Create a source of truth across your organisation

When you’re working with a team that operates in different locales or in highly regulated spaces, alignment is essential. But if information isn’t centralised and accessible, it doesn’t take long for teams to get out of sync and for silos to form. Combined with the right information architecture, version control can help you create and retain a shared source of information in all areas of your organisation.

Rather than constantly sending out updated guidelines, version control lets you keep one centralised document that everyone in your organisation can refer to. With Dropbox, your HR guidelines, for example, can be stored in a single shared folder, with specific access permissions for different team members. When updating those files, team members will find the newest information in the same source, while editors will have a record of all deprecated information. It’s a simple way of ensuring that information is securely stored, backed-up and accessible to everyone who needs it.

Automate and accelerate processes with version control

Of course, the end goal of any process optimisation should be to make something easier and less time-consuming for both managers and team members. From the very beginning, document version control can help your team be more agile. It keeps everyone up to date and aligned on documents while providing a fail-safe against downtime caused by mistakes in file handling.

With the added benefits of oversight, transparency and security, version control systems can do more than ensure you have the latest version of a file. It can provide insight into your team’s processes, help you to further refine them and then align them better across your organisation in the future.

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