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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.

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So, what exactly is version control?

Teams in organizations 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 often struggle to manage the many different versions of their work files. How many documents labeled “FINAL” are swiftly followed by “FINAL V2”? If your team is losing time locating the most recent files and tracking changes, it may be time to establish a version control system.

Version control manages different versions of files over time. Version control systems initially appeared in software development to manage changes to code. Now they 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.

The uses for version control go far beyond creating code. For example, document version control could help a writer manage different drafts of a book. It could also help a graphic designer track which design is final for a client.

Five reasons why version control is essential for teams

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

1. Retain every different version of a file

The core benefit of version control is the ability to retain every single version of a document or file throughout a project workflow—from start to finish. You can check for differences between versions and ensure that all changes are approved. A well-organized version control system allows you to be certain that what makes it into the final version is final, not added after work hours without all collaborators knowing.

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

2. Secure file handling and editing

Nothing delays work in a team more than someone overwriting a file without permission or accidentally deleting a file. From that point, there’s nothing you can do other than trawl through your emails, hoping to find a copy of the original file. Version control systems retain file versions at every stage, so you can always count on having a backup. With Dropbox file recovery, if a team member makes changes or deletes a file, any previous version is always available.

3. Monitor changes from team members

When you have a large team working together, it's important know who’s changed what and when. Shared documents typically include details about who most recently edited them but may not have 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, 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 the details of 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 and accountability for those files. You can see when your team members begin working on a file or if something is changed wrongly or accidentally. You can immediately check any file changes with the relevant person without any awkward emails alerting the whole team in Slack.

4. Create a source of truth across your organization

When you’re working with a team that operates in different locales or regulated spaces, alignment is essential. If information isn’t centralized 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 organization.

Rather than constantly sending out updated guidelines, version control lets you keep one centralized incrementally backed-up document that everyone in your organization can refer to. For example, with Dropbox, you can store your HR guidelines 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. Any editors will have a record of all deprecated information. It’s a simple way of ensuring that everything is securely stored, backed up, and accessible to everyone who needs it.

5. Automate and accelerate business processes

The end goal of any process optimization should be to make something more straightforward and less time-consuming for 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 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 refine them further, and then align them better across your organization.

How to create a document management system with version control

There are a variety of approaches you can take to version control, depending on your team's needs and the size of your organization. Most people will give a version number to a file they’re sending or label documents with initials or “reviewed.” Everyone labels things differently, so this approach can quickly become confused, especially with many collaborators across a large organization. When it gets to this point, a defined approach is needed to manage a team’s files.

1. 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 clear to anyone accessing your files. It should also be based on how your team interacts with those files. If, for example, the documents' dates are the most important factor to your team in organizing them, then file names should begin with a date. The first part of the name should reflect the most common way your team searches through those documents. From there, file names should include the most important information to quickly determine content. If you’re going to use a naming convention alone as your version control system, it must also include a numbering system for different and new versions.

2. Information architecture

Once you’ve established a method of labeling your documents that works for your team, you need an accessible system for storing them securely. That’s where information architecture comes in, which is simply the layout of folders and files you use to store information. Naturally, a naming convention also plays a significant role here—there’s no use having strictly organized 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 organization.

Usually, the best way to handle this is 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 create repositories for their work with specific access permissions for people inside and outside the team.

3. 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 the 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.

Dropbox Sync automatically stores every previous version of a file. All of your files can then be accessed or reverted for up to 180 days. Sync also serves as a backup for the current version of the file. Team members can work concurrently on separate files with Dropbox before updating to the current version making 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.

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