Manage the documents on a project before they manage you

Managing documentation is important to prevent the storing and finding documents becoming an obstacle to completing a project successfully.

Early in my career, I was assigned to two large projects. As you might expect, the project team struggled with scope, risk, communications, etc.

However, the thing that I remember was the most troubling was document management. Both of these projects generated a lot of documents and, very early in the project, it became apparent that things were getting out of control. We had duplicate documents and documents we couldn't find at all. Some documents were located on team members' hard drives, and everything in a different format. In other words, we had a mess!

That experience taught me that the management of documentation is a fundamental part of larger projects, and it's why document management is one of the core components of our TenStep Project Management Process.

Document management is totally practical. The project manager should think ahead of time about how documentation will be managed so that he or she does not end up in a situation where storing and finding documents is an obstacle to completing a project successfully. Imagine the embarrassment of missing your end-date and having to tell your sponsor it was because no one could ever find the documents they were looking for.

The larger the project, the more rigorous structure is needed to manage documents. The following areas should be considered part of an overall document management plan.

  1. Determine where to store documents. This is a no-brainer. The project team should have a common area, or repository, for storing documents.
  2. Define a logical and physical document organizational structure. Once you know where you will store documents, you should also determine the directory or folder structure and define what types of documents go where.
  3. Define naming standards. Don’t let everyone call documents anything they want. Provide the naming conventions so that you can instantly tell what type of information is in each document.
  4. Determine if some documents need versioning. The project manager should determine whether multiple versions of documents will be saved or if just the latest version will be saved. If multiple versions are saved, you'll need some type of versioning technique to make sure people know what version they're reading.
  5. Determine if (and how) you will track document approval status. This lets you know if a document has "final," "draft" or "awaiting approval" status. Again, if you don’t manage the documents, people will read drafts and think they have the final version.
  6. Define standard document formats. It's easier to read and create documents if they all have a standard format, fonts, headers, footers, etc.

This type of work may sound tedious, and some of it is. However, all large projects need to work through these areas, and more. If you are a proactive project manager, you will set up these standards ahead of time. If you are reactive, you'll still set up these standards, only you'll have to do it after you and your team become overwhelmed by documentation during the project.