What is Version Control & Why Is It Important?

Does this scenario sound familiar? You’re collaborating with a group of colleagues to update a standard operating procedure (SOP) that will be reviewed and edited by each of you. The document is passed around the office on paper or emailed to each person simultaneously so that they can make changes. There may be one person designated to coordinate the effort, but this informal system can lead to a great deal of confusion.

How can you be certain that you are working on the most current version? Can you figure out who made a change that you’d like to discuss before it’s incorporated into the final document? What if you know want how the SOP you’re revising evolved over time? That’s when version control, which is also called version management, comes into play. Without it, proving that a document hasn’t been tampered with can be challenging because without the appropriate security measures enforced by version control software, it’s easy to alter digital documents and even easier to conceal who changed them. 

How does a version control system work?

In today’s business environment, the ability to identify what has changed between document versions and ensure users are always working with the most current version is essential.  The concepts behind this approach are simple. Once version control is turned on, when an authorised user opens a document to edit it, its status shows as “checked out.” Then the document is read-only for other users.  Every time a document is checked back in, it automatically receives a new version number. When a team member searches for a document, the newest version will automatically be displayed. Version management also provides a clear overview of every step of the revision process.  When you automate this process with a document management system, you don’t have to sort through an unorganised pile of paper, follow a long email trail or struggle to figure out who authored specific changes.  The name of the editor, what they changed and when they did so is added to the document and becomes part of an audit trail.  If your company has to follow strict quality guidelines and fully document each step in the revision process, the audit log can be set up to show how changes are proposed, drafted, reviewed and approved. 

Version control best practices

1. Create and enforce SOPs

Consistent version control practices are the backbone of an effective and audit-proof effort. Automated workflow helps by translating your SOPs into functional business practices. 

2. Audit logs are key

With a comprehensive audit log, you can accurately track all revisions, view the version history and access older versions.

3. Automate approvals 

Use workflow to email the final document to the stakeholders who are responsible for approving it and keep track of when all approvals are received. Then the document is ready for release. This ensures that sensitive information like HR policies will not be visible to those outside the project team until the document is approved. 

4. Save draft versions

This preserves a record of the process of developing the document. For example, you may want insight into why particular changes were made when revising the document in the future.

5.  Use the comments feature

Include notes on each version so that it isn’t necessary to open every document version to see what major changes were made in it. 

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