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What Is Document Control? Definition, Aspects, and the Role of Automation

Aug 24, 2020 | 7 minutes
A woman holding a document. Document automation.

After writing about Electronic Document Management Systems (EDMS), I got hooked by the topic of documentation, and particularly, by the concept of “document control”. 

First of all, document control is central to virtually every organization out there and has been for a while. 

In fact, some of the earliest examples of writing are of administrative nature, and correspond to the Jemdet Nasr period, an ancient culture from the southern Mesopotamia region. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that document control is, in fact, as ancient as the written word itself.

Coming back to the present, document control represents a key aspect of ISO standards, which companies seek to adopt in order to demonstrate quality, reliability, and other important traits related to their products, services, and processes. 

Ironically, online documentation touching upon document control is scant, contradictory, and vague. The shoemaker’s son always goes barefoot, right? 

This exactly is why I decided to take a deep dive into the subject of document control. In this article, I will:

  • Offer a thorough definition of document control

  • Clarify the different acceptances and implications of document control

  • Explain the role of document controllers and document control systems

  • Show how automation can improve processes related to document control

After all, tasks related to documentation can easily become repetitive, tedious, and costly. In other words: fertile soil for automation. 

But before we get there, let’s start with the basic concepts. Read on!

What is document control?

In its simplest acceptance, document control refers to a series of practices to ensure that documents are created, reviewed, distributed, and disposed of in a systematic, verifiable manner. 

The term is most widely known in the context of ISO standards, and particularly within ISO 9001:2008 and ISO 9001:2015 standards. 

For example, the ISO 9001:2015 standard requires organizations to establish a documented procedure to control several aspects of documents, including:

  • Identification

  • Storage

  • Protection

  • Retrieval

  • Retention

  • Review

  • Approval

  • Disposition

  • Legibility

  • Change tracking

These procedures can help a company stay organized and nimble, particularly as it grows. 

In addition, document control practices are instrumental to maintain document integrity and traceability, aspects that are key for countless businesses out there. 

Before we move on, I want to clarify that the information contained in this article will stick to the broader definition of document control. 

This post does not intend to be an ISO guide, but a synthesis of all the disparate bits of information touching upon the subject of document control that can be found throughout the web.

Document control examples

It’s easier to understand the meaning of document control by referring to a number of widely-known examples. 

For instance, there are many apps that let you track and control the changes in a document, such as Google Docs. 

Storage is another aspect that is extremely easy to provide examples for. There are countless software products built for this purpose. Some of the most popular include:

  • Google Drive

  • Dropbox

  • Adobe Document Cloud

Moreover, document storage software often represents the backbone of electronic document control systems (EDMS), and the cornerstone for most of the document control procedures that an organization adopts.

What is a document control system?

Formally speaking, a document control system is a group of interrelated processes, workflows, and software products used in the production and management of documentation within an organization. 

However, the term is often used interchangeably for electronic document management systems (EDMS), which represent the systems employed to store, organize, manage, share, and track an organization’s files and documents. 

This is different from a content management system (CMS) like ones provided by WordPress or HubSpot that can store and organize documents like an EDMS, but specialize in creating, hosting, and publishing new content like blogs or articles.

To complicate things a bit further, document management systems tend to be storage systems at their core. Examples of EDMS are:

  • Google Drive

  • Dropbox

  • Microsoft SharePoint

  • Microsoft OneDrive

  • Egnyte

  • eFileCabinet

  • DocuWare

  • Citrix ShareFile

All things considered, a document control system can be regarded as the software products that an organization uses to manage documentation, plus the set of standards and procedures that derive in specific, recognizable workflows.

Which are the best document control systems?

There is no objective answer to this question. Organizations have different needs, and a system that works seamlessly for one might prove ineffective for the next in line. 

On the other hand, there are market-leading products (which I covered above), and also internationally recognized standards for procedures like ISO. 

Combining top-level standards with a market-leading solution is how you attain a great document control system, but the specifics of such combinations are for each organization to solve. 

As for software products alone, I recommend you to take a look at ratings and reviews in Capterra and G2Crowd.

Why do you need document control?

There are many possible answers to this question, so let’s go step by step. 

The first one is quite simple: because it makes sense. 

Documentation is key in every single organization, and having apps and procedures to manage it will likely improve the quality of it, as well as the organization’s productivity and performance. 

The second answer is related to what an organization requires on a constant basis, or on a case-sensitive scenario. For example, a company merger is a scenario that demands extensive document control. 

The third answer touches upon specific and unavoidable requirements, such as ISO standards. In such cases, document control must be in place in order to attain the desired certification.

What is a document controller?

Also known as a document control specialist, the document controller is responsible for ensuring document control procedures. 

The role can be internal or external; more often than not, document controllers work for external certification bodies, helping companies comply with ISO standards and attain the corresponding certification. 

However, it is not rare for mid-sized and large organizations to hire document controllers. In these cases, the role often demands technical expertise in one or more areas, which is deemed key to understanding the processes that will be covered by the documentation. 

It’s also important to note that software products do not replace the need for document controllers, since the role is about identifying, tracking, and establishing procedures for information dealing happening within a company. 

In case you are interested in learning about the document controller’s career progression, I recommend this article.

How do you maintain document control?

Generally speaking, maintaining document control requires the organization to adhere to the procedures established for that purpose. Hence the importance of traceability and clear access points for documentation -- if it can’t be accessed, traced, or demonstrated, you are witnessing a procedural failure. 

This said, there are five initiatives that can facilitate the task of maintaining document control:

  1. Hire proper document controllers

  2. Establish clear procedures

  3. Train teams to follow the procedures

  4. Pick the right software tools for document control

  5. Review the results on a periodic basis, and adjust

Maintaining document control is particularly relevant for ISO-certified companies since all ISO standards need to be reviewed every three years.

Can document control be automated?

Document control automation is a reality, although not every aspect of it can be effectively automated. 

While restrictions apply, countless processes and related tasks are easily automatable, and the tools to do so are readily available. 

I’ve decided to include a few examples of document control processes that you can automate using Make. These represent just a fraction of what can be automated, but nonetheless are useful to get an idea of how document control automation works.

Document creation and routing

Document templates are very useful for reporting tasks, and the process can be automated. 

With Make, you can automate the creation of documents from spreadsheet data (in the case below, from Airtable data, but you can use Excel or Google Sheets), and send it to the people who need to review it.

This automation is available as a template, and it can be particularly useful to automate processes that require recurring reporting of dynamic data -- for example, sales data.

Electronic document storage and tracking

It is not rare for companies to lose track of email attachments, but it doesn’t have to be that way. 

This integration does a very simple thing: it saves email attachments to Google Drive. That way, you can guarantee proper storage and traceability to the documentation that is sent over email. 

Needless to say, you can tweak this template to suit your needs. For example, if your company relies on Dropbox, or FTP servers to keep backup versions of documents, you can use those apps instead of Google Drive.

The result, in disregard of the article, will be controlled documents.

Document backup and protection

Another common occurrence among large companies is the use of multiple electronic document management software. In such cases, keeping a coherent, solid backup of all documentation going through those systems can be tricky - or not. 

With Make, you can automate the creation of backup documentation across multiple EDMS. The template below shows a simplified version of this: it creates copies of Google Drive files in Egnyte, a service that has been noted for its high-security standards. 

This way, you can forget about routine documentation backups, and leave it to an Make process humming in the background.

Conclusion: If it’s repetitive and involves documents, you can probably automate it

A few years ago, I worked on a series of certification processes for a forestry firm, creating and maintaining documentation to obtain FSC certification for the forests that the company managed. 

It is an experience that I will never forget: grueling, demanding, tedious, and prone to human error (my errors, naturally). 

These are the main reasons why I thoroughly recommend the automation of document control processes whenever it’s feasible to do it. 

With automation, we can reduce the risk of failing at document control, simply because it stops depending on our (very human) short attention spans and capacity for distraction. 

In other words: you can’t forget about sending an email, making copies of a document, or updating a database when a simple, cost-effective software does it for you. 

At the end of the day, automation can mark the difference between an error-prone internal bureaucracy and a nimble series of protocols that make everyone’s life easier. 

Happy automating!


Martin Etchegaray

Content Manager and Senior Editor at Make. I enjoy writing and reading about history, science, and tech.

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