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How To Do Document Version Control (with example)

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A reader got in touch recently and asked for more info on document version control and how to do it.

What is version control?

The quick definition is this:

Document version control is the process of tracking and managing different versions (or drafts) of a document so you know which is the current iteration of a file.

Version control is used for lots of project management documents as well as other assets.

You’ll come it across it in other areas of your work as well, particularly in coding, where developers need to keep meticulous logs of what’s been changed and what version is the current version of the code.

In that environment it’s part of project configuration management. The main elements of configuration management aren’t that different when we’re talking specifically about documents.

I honestly thought I already had covered this topic on the blog – it’s certainly the subject of a chapter in my book, Shortcuts to Success: Project Management in the Real World.

(The chapter is only a few pages long; even I can’t spin out version control for more than that!)

Why is version control important?

Why would you want to know which is the latest version of something?

Version control is important because then you know everyone is working from the same version of a document. And you know they’ve got the latest version.

Imagine the hours lost if someone on your team was working from out of date requirements, for example.

Actually, I don’t have to imagine that situation, having been in it! It became part of lessons learned for our projects. Learn from my mistakes and keep tabs on how your files are evolving with version control.

working at a desk

How to get started with document version control

Configuration management has always seemed to me to be a fancy title for something that’s very easy to do.

(If you care about this kind of thing: your configuration management plan is part of your project management plan.)

The easiest way to version control your documents is to have your software tools do it for you.

Project management collaboration tools often have this feature baked in. If you can find the right tool.

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Every time you save a document back to the repository, your software creates a new version so you can always to back and see the changes that have been made.

using a laptop

How does version control work?

Version control works because the process makes sure no one is over-writing or changing the information entered into the document by someone else. In other words, someone ‘checks out’ the document and works on it.

Then other people can access and do their changes, comment on the changes already made, accept, reject and edit.

You carry on like that until you have a final version of the document that everyone can agree to.

How to do version control for documents

Some software tools have version control built in. Microsoft SharePoint, for example, was a life-saver when I was using it, because it kept copies of previous versions. You could configure how many versions it kept.

Then if someone messed up a version or you wanted to compare what had been changed, you could easily review a file from several iterations ago.

Google Docs has built-in version control in that you can see the revision history of your online documents.

Check the software you use — maybe it already has version control features or they could be switched on.

If you don’t already backup your documents beyond simply saving another copy with a new version number, then read how to choose a backup solution for your project data.

How to use document numbering in a version control table

If you don’t have software that can do it for you, you can control your document versions manually.

Add a version control table to the front of the document that says the version, the author, a brief summary of changes in that iteration of the document and the date.

Here’s what that the table would look like:

0.11 March 2017Nanette BaileyFirst draft
0.215 March 2017N BaileyReview by
0.322 March 2017N Bailey and F
Wider review
by project team; section 6
updated (new
0.428 March 2017F JacobsFinal review by all
project team
0.53 April 2017N Bailey and F
Final version
for signature;
costs updated
1.014 April 2017F JacobsIssued
1.127 April 2017N BaileyUpdated
(section 5)

Versions are 0.1, 0.2 etc until such point as the document is approved. Then it becomes version 1.0.

Subsequent edited versions become 1.1, 1.2, or if it’s a major update, 2.0.

Just like they name new iPhones, or software versions! Do not worry about the numbers going up and up. In one of my projects we’re currently on version 15 of a technical spec and you know what – it’s all fine.

working on an ipad

You’ve got numbers to use to refer to (and dates for extra backup) so that when you are talking to your team members you can reference the version you are using or expecting them to use.

They can quickly see from the front of the document if they have the right/most current version.

Most of the document templates I use already have this table set up at the front. Once you’ve got it done, it’s easy to copy and paste the format to other documents.

It’s not the most interesting part of project management but good document version control will keep you organized!

How to do document version control

About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin is a Fellow of the Association for Project Management in the UK and the award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.


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