The best time to set up a robust document management system is when your company is small, and you can spare the time. When your business is growing, and you get busier, you won’t have to think about it. It has the added benefit that when you take on employees, the work you have done will help you to onboard them efficiently. So how do you start?
Questions to ask yourself:
- What documents will I be saving electronically?
- How do I want to arrange my folders?
- Do I need version control?
- What information do I need to have at hand for administration such as tax?
- How long do I need to store my documents?
- How can I prevent data loss?
You need some structure, but you also don’t want to be clicking multiple times through subfolders to reach the document you want. The number of subfolders you need will obviously depend on your business type. In the simplest case, you may have a Customer folder, subdivided into projects and financial documents. You may also later add a layer for year if it is a long-lasting relationship. For your own business documents, make an Admin folder to store documents such as Financial – BTW, receipts and so on, Templates, Strategy and Instruction documents, etc.
Work out a naming structure for your documents and use it consistently, this will allow you to find your documents quickly and should also be meaningful to anyone you share the documents with.
Consider the following:
Should it contain the customer name or yours? If the document is going to the customer, your company name should be on it, perhaps in an abbreviated form. If Company X receives quotations from 5 companies who have all named their document Company X, it not useful to the company; they want to know which company sent the quotation – at a glance, without having to rename the document themselves.
Company identifier – If there is a job number or project name, add that too.
Add Version number, if applicable (see Version control).
Date, the best format for dates on file names is YYYY-MM-DD (all numbers!).
Use camel case (capitalising first letter of a word and leaving out the spaces) and/or underscores and hyphens to separate words rather than spaces e.g. DAS_SurveyResponse_2020-06-04) and be careful to avoid using characters such as , . & % / .
Having a standard for naming your documents means that they will be sortable by name in your folder structure; alphabetically and numerically. This will make finding a specific document much easier.
Having said all that, you want to keep your file name reasonably short while still being informative, a maximum of 30 characters, for example: DAS_quote_job123_2020-06-04.docx
Once you have a naming strategy including version control, document it and save it. Add to it each time you create a new document type.
This has been mentioned in passing above. It is worth having a strategy for version control along with your file naming strategy. You may not see the need if you are still working alone, but good practices should be an integral part of your work. In the beginning, a draft version and a final version may be all you need, but if multiple people are contributing to or editing a document, you need to know which is the most recent version.
Final versions may also change if, for example, the customer adds new requirements or requests edits. Templates always need version control so that you can be sure that you are using the most up to date version of the template. Your system can simply be D1, D2 etc. for drafts and for ‘final’ versions V1, V2. In some cases, you may decide to further subdivide your numbering: V1, V1.1, V1.2, V2 etc.
You can save time and stress by creating templates for all the types of documents that you will make regularly. This practice has the added advantage that you can create a consistent document layout that will increase the professional image of your company. You will also ensure that your company logo, and contact details are on all your documents.
Obvious templates to start with would be invoices and quotations, but if you are providing documentation that must contain certain information or follow a particular structure – make a template. You can find templates online for some document types such as invoices. Use one of these as a starting point, make it your own and then save it with a clear name and version number. This version number should appear on the footer inside the document. When you edit the template, update the version number.
A template can be more complex than an invoice, and may include a table of contents, compulsory section headings and appendices. A note of warning: never use an existing document as a template, this practice brings a high risk of introduced errors. Start with the template and, if necessary, copy/paste text from the previous document. (See also Quality Control).
Plan for document retention
Some industries have regulations regarding the length of time your data should be available. Make sure you know the rules for your field and also for your business’ financial data.
Plan regular reviews of your documents and delete those that are no longer needed. For example, do you need to keep all of the draft versions? This goes for your email as well. Start as you mean to go on = Mean and Clean.
Data loss happens more frequently than you would imagine. It can be as simple as accidental file deletion and hardware failure, or involve malware (viruses and worms) and cyberattacks, and then there are natural disasters like fire, flooding etc.
The key questions are: how much will it cost you if you lose your data and how much data can you afford to lose? The first question will determine the amount you will be prepared to pay for backup technology and the second, the frequency of your backups.
The simplest backup is a portable hard drive which can be a flash drive or external hard drive. However, onsite backup is still vulnerable to disasters like fire. Cloud storage is probably the best option but research the best option for your company. Belt and braces are recommended – have both local and cloud backup, and don’t delay setting up an automatic backup of your essential folders. I also advise you to read up on advice for dealing with (unsolicited) emails with attachments. Finally, write an instruction document for this and your backup plan, and ensure that any employees are trained.
Last but certainly not least, review your documents before they go out to a customer – always. Plan your work so that you have time to do so. It is very difficult to do QC on your own work; the preference is to have someone else review it with fresh eyes, but that is not always possible for a one-person business. Tip: if you have to review a document you personally wrote, leave it for some hours before reviewing. I highly recommend making a QC checklist for each type of document you have a template for. Some items will be reviewed on all document types, but some will be unique.
Items on your checklist
- The template version, any reference to the customer and job identifier, date, your references e.g. invoice number.
- Check spelling, consistent use of abbreviations, capitalisation, hyphens etc. Use a spell and grammar checker but do not accept all changes blindly.
- For longer documents check: that the table of contents is updated; the abbreviation list against the text; that appendices and attachments are present and correctly identified; that all mandatory sections are present.
- Check that the header and footer contain correct information, including page numbering (I recommend using page x of y format for multi-page documents).
- Review for formatting issues, orphan headers etc.
Final check: remove any track changes; remove version from footer, (if you prefer); ensure file name is correct and updated.
Final step before sending to the customer: in many cases, a document created in a text document should be saved as a pdf for sending out to the customer, unless it is a document that they will expect to be able to edit.
By considering the information above, it will help you to streamline and standardise your document management so that you can save your energy for your core business. Good luck.
Dawn Macfarlane | DawnAuroraServices.com
Copyediting; CV review; Voice overs; English courses