Document Management: Do’s and Don’ts

document-management-best-practice

In a world of working from home, hybrid scenarios, or even the “old-school” way of being in an office, 9-5 Monday to Friday, we mostly all need information in order to perform our roles. Some of this information is found in emails, messages, video or audio calls, or data gathering…but a lot of the information we work with is ultimately in documents.  

Is Document Management even important?

So how do we as the end-users know the best way to manage those documents? Often, we don’t unfortunately and as time goes on, fewer records or document management roles are considered when hiring for or planning an organisation’s structure. Document Management (DM), for the most part, is seen as something that anyone can do and there is no need for “professionals.” 

As a Records Manager, I mostly disagree with that theory, but could support it, if I knew all end-users, to appropriate levels, were being trained and educated on best practices for managing the information they work with. It does not matter what system(s) they are using, as long as they know how to use it and any policies or directives from the company, they need to follow are: 

  • Clearly stated and communicated; and 
  • Regularly updated and disseminated. 

If that is not the case and end-users are left, largely to their own devices, then a word of caution—you as document owners or the people who are accountable for the information—will have a heck of a time ensuring you have the right information, at the right time and in the right format or even version for that matter! (Good luck!!) 

As a Microsoft 365 Consultant, I have seen some situations and set-ups that make the information professional in me cringe and gasp. I hope the chart below can provide some simple guidance on getting a handle on your DM, and though the following is geared toward working with the MS365 suite, it is not essential to have in order to implement some of the practices below and wipe out those in the “Don’t” column!  

Document Management Best Practice

Document Management Do’sDocument Management Don’ts 
Have a working group or committee that is responsible for Document Management. Do not implement a document management system without buy-in from senior management. 
Clear, concise, and simple naming conventions Do not think people will “pick up and adopt” how to use a DM system, just because they have to. 
Decide on a system to use and plan how you will use it. E.g.:  Will MS Teams be your front end document management system with SharePoint accessed when necessary?  Is SharePoint the front-end tool for DM and Teams is mostly messaging and meetings?  What about OneDrive – what are you using that for—personal files, working drafts? Or are you still using a shared drive – that’s okay, just make sure people know what to use for what! Do not have multiple systems for managing documents, or if you do, have it clearly spelled out what each system is used for. E.g.: MS Teams is used for collaborating on files and communicating, but SharePoint is where we manage our documents. Use OneDrive for only personal files and working files, but once they are ready for release you must move them to SharePoint. Use the shared drive for all policy and contract documents, but working files are on MS Teams, etc. 
Train all users: Train admins so they know how to manage the system. Train information governance staff, data controllers/officers how to use the system for what they may need it for (e.g. security and compliance). Train end-user so they can work effectively and efficiently. Train Champions so they can be the first-line of support and promote the system. Train all users to the same level or worse, do not train them at all! (You would be surprised how often this happens!!!                     
If using a traditional folder approach—no matter where you build the folder structure: Plan it with key stakeholders. Allow for logical growth. Have someone(s) responsible for the creation of folders/MS Teams channels, changes and updates to the structure, or champions from each area who are responsible for their area. Communicate and educate on what is filed where. Keep it as flat as possible – three levels or less. Ensure permissions are handled at the highest level possible (preferably site or library if using SharePoint).Leave it up to everyone and anyone to create SharePoint libraries, folders, and/or Teams channels wherever and whenever they want. (This will most likely result in an illogical structure with no room for sensible growth, duplication, and users creating bootleg structures where they shouldn’t, e.g desktops).
Manage the document throughout its lifecycle: Ensure the right documents are being created, e.g. use the +New menu in a Teams Files tab or SharePoint library to have the necessary documents available for users (templates, content types). Set guidelines and policy on sharing documents internally and externally, e.g. use the Share function in SharePoint or OneDrive to send links instead of attachments. Mark and limit actions on documents that contain sensitive or personal information (use Sensitivity labels that securely protect and classify information—MS 365 Compliance Centre). Make sure the right disposition actions are taken at the end of its lifecycle, e.g. use retention labels and/or policies to trigger a deletion, review, further retention or even declare a document a record (MS 365 Compliance Centre).Let the end user create documents wherever they want, not worrying about up-to-date templates or formats. Email attachments internally and externally or use third-party tools that have not been approved by the organisation to transfer files, taking it out of the system and creating duplication.  Do not pay any attention on how many documents exist or how old they are. 
If using metadata/tags to classify documents (or even hybrid folder and metadata): Talk to your users and explain what metadata is and how it can help. Decide if you want to have “core” metadata that can be used across the organisation, then meet with representatives to determine the core tags. Talk to each team and together, determine what would be useful tags for their specific work. Set it up so it is scalable, uses content types and can be used where needed (not all teams may need metadata and can function well with folders). Ensure everyone knows how to then tag documents and the benefits such as: Filtering columns, Adapting views, Searching. Utilise other tools such as Power Automate for approvals or reminders or more complex processes triggered by metadata. Expect users to know how to create columns in SharePoint and create meaningful ones.  Put no thought into how tags can be used across the organisation and therefore potentially re-used where applicable.  Put no planning into how this will affect usability or what else can be done with it. 
Continue to evaluate current system and plan for improvements. Build it once and let it be. 

Overall

I am sure I could come up with several more examples, most likely far more “don’ts” than “do’s” – but let’s keep this (fairly) simple for now and hopefully give you some food for thought about how to best manage your documents.  

Remember, sure it is up to the end-user to do many of the activities such as create, use, and disseminate the documents, but is it really up to them to make sure the information is protected and managed throughout its life?  

No, that is up to the organisation’s management to make sure the tools, personnel and skills are present to help get the job done properly. The points above are just there to guide you along the way.