Document Control: How to Build Automated Document Workflows

Your company's most important data is scattered across dozens of apps, or lives in your team's heads. A document control system centralizes everything while ensuring that docs are up to date, signed off on by stakeholders, and easy to locate when needed.

Document Control: How to Build Automated Document Workflows
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You’re writing a press release, drafting an invoice, pulling together an ad campaign. You need details, details you might want to confirm before publication: The precise company bio wording, the standard operating procedures around deals, and the exact brand color.
So you searched, and surfaced a quote in Notion, an older contract template, a brand guide referenced in Slack. Yet you wonder:
Is that the right document?
Are you sure the data you found is the latest info, the quote your boss signed off on, the colors the design team approved? What if you need clarification: Do you know who wrote or updated the doc?
Thus document control. As time consuming as it can be to organize files and document changes, the investment will pay dividends every time your team quickly finds documents and data they need.
Here’s how to build an automated document control system for your team.

What is document control?

Write. Approve. Store. Share. Then update, and start again. That’s document control, in a nutshell.
Write. Approve. Store. Share. Then update, and start again. That’s document control, in a nutshell.
Document control is a process around how your team creates, approves, updates, distributes, and archives documents—with logs detailing every step of the workflow.
It’s all in thinking about documents like a librarian. You can’t just walk in and put a new book on a library shelf. There’s a process for a librarian to approve and log the new book in a database. A process to assign a dewey decimal number and shelve a book. A process to check out a book, another to return it. A process, even, to retire old books and free up space for the new.
If your team creates documents in Google Docs, tags managers and stakeholders in Trello to review the doc, then shares finished documents to Slack, you’re halfway there.
Odds are though, your team doesn’t follow every step, every time. Odds are you have some stuff documented in Google Docs, others in Notion or Confluence, with critical contracts saved as PDFs and scattered between email and Dropbox and flash drives.
“47% of digital workers struggle to find information or data needed to effectively perform their jobs,” reported Gartner in early 2023. A number of studies have found that people spend nearly 20% of their work days looking for files—a number that has held remarkably consistent, despite ever-faster computers and shinier apps. No wonder, when our data’s scattered across an ever-increasing number of apps.
Document control is how to make sense of the mess. With document control procedures in place that outline how documents are written, approved, updated, shared, and stored, you’ll always know where the most important files live.

An ISO 9001:2015 guide to document control

Documents seem mundane at best. Yet the guidelines that keep hospitals, airlines, and factories humming along rise and fall on documents. If a doctor cannot locate dosage information or a pilot cannot find a flight plan, everything stops. That’s why international guidelines have been built around document control.
“This International Standard promotes the adoption of a process approach,” opens the ISO 9001 guidelines, and that’s the core idea. Creating a document isn’t just pressing File -> New in Word. It’s starting a process built to ensure that every document is up to the same standard.
That process is up to your company. The latest ISO guidelines suggest that organizations “Maintain documented information to the extent necessary to support the operation of processes.” Smaller teams, simpler processes. Multinational corporations, more detailed processes.
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First, document everything. No important process should live solely in one individual’s head. There’s always the bus factor; can your company continue to run if that person’s no longer there? Could you do your job if you forget a few steps in a routine process? Everything important should be documented.
Identify those documents. Each should have a unique name and document control number, plus a version and publication date to ensure this copy’s the most up-to-date one.
Then, review. Someone—a boss, a stakeholder, a team leader, even a colleague to double-check—should review the document before it’s disseminated. Who signs off on making something official company policy, or agrees to contracts and deals? Assign them to check.
Storage and sharing is next. You need one place where all of your company documents live—file storage like Dropbox or Google Drive, or newer systems like Notion or Slite. And you need to tell everyone about new documents. Email them to stakeholders, or share files on Slack or Microsoft Teams for a modern workflow. Ensure everyone who needs those documents can access them, and no one else (HR and upper management might be the only ones who should see hiring docs, say, while design guidelines should be accessible to the whole team).
Updates matter too. Some things, like your company’s formation documents, last forever. Others, like your brand style guide, change with the times. Stakeholders need to review documents every so often to ensure they’re up-to-date, kicking off a new round of the identify, review, storage (archiving the old version for reference if needed, replacing its original spot with the new doc), and sharing processes.
Then, eventually, documents get retired. Your company quits using an app or changes manufacturing processes, and those details are no longer relevant. Don’t delete them, ISO recommends (and, depending on your industry, regulations may require). Archive them instead, again in a standardized way so anyone can find old documents when needed.
And, last but not least, log every step. Some industries require audited processes; for the rest of us, it’s helpful to know who wrote or reviewed guidelines so we can ask them if we need more info, or to ensure new team members read required docs. That log could live with your documents, or in a separate file, if needed.
The goal, ISO 9001 says, is to ensure any document “is available and suitable for use, where and when it is needed.”
That’s document control. Cover all the steps, and you’ll have a system approximating ISO-style document control (though do consult the official ISO 9001 docs if your business needs certification).
All that’s left is to turn that into a repeatable, automated process so your team will actually stick with your new document control process.

Document control considerations

Before you automate, though, think through how document control should work at your company. You might need different processes for different teams and document types.
Who should review documents? “Nothing is worse than having to merge changes made by two parties (and potentially misinterpreting or misplacing content),” wrote Jamf director Charles Edge, except perhaps having someone reviewing documents who doesn’t know what’s going on. “So, where appropriate, be the document lead pilot.” Create docs, and think through who should review them. Get in touch, let them know they’re going to start getting notified when their team creates new stuff. Make sure you have buy-in, first.
How long should the review take? “Three business days for reviewing or proofreading less than a page, and five business days for a more extensive review,” suggests Joel Schwartzberg in Harvard Business Review, is sufficient. Less time might work for reviewers who are close to a project, perhaps managers reviewing their direct reports’ files. More might be required for executive input.
How should the details be logged? You could have a custom document management system with tags, dates, and access logs—but that might be overkill, and hard to migrate later. “The problem with metadata systems is that they tend to either be proprietary or only applicable to certain file types,“ Ben Durbin shared on productivity blog 43 Folders. File names are a good alternative, with names like Design System v2 03112023-1.pdf encapsulating most of the details needed (name, version, date as part of a document control number). They’re “a ‘good enough’ solution that works well most of the time if you don't have a more robust metadata system in place,” Durbin suggests. You can also pair documents with a spreadsheet, Notion table, or Airtable database, to log every change: Who made a document, when it was made, who approved, and more.
Speaking of PDFs, how should your documents be saved? PDFs have the advantage of being difficult to edit, making it unlikely they’ll be accidentally edited. Or, in Google Docs, share documents as “Anyone with the link → Viewer” so colleagues can see, not edit, a doc. In Notion, lock completed documents for the same effect. That way, changes will be made only when a document is updated and reviewed again.
The type of files you decide to use will help determine how to save and share them. PDFs or Google Docs might be best in structured folders, perhaps organized by department or project. Notion files or documents in other notes, documentation, and knowledge base tools might be organized by tag, with a directory tickler file that lists every available document.
Pick what works best for you and your team. Start simple; add steps only when needed. Then it’s time to automate it.

How to build an automated document control system

Start out by automating a simple part of your document control system.
For example, your onboarding process. You need to get info from new employees, turn that into documents and records for HR, and ensure this new employee reads your training manual.
You can do all of this in a form, with Fillout, paired with an app to log data.
Fillout forms can gather data and signatures, and show videos or PDF documents for review at the same time
Fillout forms can gather data and signatures, and show videos or PDF documents for review at the same time
Say you want to keep your employee records in a custom Airtable HR database. Build out a new Airtable table to list everything you need to track about employees, including a field for their signature and to track that they read the document.
Then, in Fillout, create a new form with its Airtable integration and select your employee database. Drag-and-drop in any of your existing fields from Airtable, and Fillout will automatically save that data whenever your form is filled out. Then, click the Other button in the left-hand column, and add Fillout-specific fields. You can add a signature, so employees can certify that they read a document or confirm an NDA. You can add a PDF viewer, to embed a document in your form and log that it was read during onboarding. Or, you can use Fillout’s AI from the purple button to add additional fields to your form in seconds.
Map any data from a Fillout form into Airtable—including digital signatures and timestamps.
Map any data from a Fillout form into Airtable—including digital signatures and timestamps.
Fillout will automatically link any Airtable fields you added to your form. Any extra fields—including the signature field and the date the form was signed—will need to be linked manually. Click Integrations in Fillout’s header, then edit your Airtable integration and link the date field to the time the form was filled out, the signature field to your form’s signature, and add any other data you need. That’s enough to build a log tracking that every new employee reads your onboarding documents.
A Zapier workflow can notify reviewers, rename files, and store them where needed for an automated
A Zapier workflow can notify reviewers, rename files, and store them where needed for an automated
You can also automatically generate documents from the signatures, name files to fit your document control style, and notify reviewers with an automation platform like Zapier or Make. Start your workflow with a trigger that watches for new Fillout form entries. Then add a Google Docs step to create a PDF from form entries—or, a Google Slides step to create a signed PDF.
Now, you need to notify a reviewer, to ensure the onboarding doc looks correct. Add a Path to your Zap, and filter the responses based on the team they’re joining. You could then customize how you notify reviewers based on the team. Maybe a marketing manager reviewers new editorial hires, so you could notify them via email. A project manager might review new dev hires, and they’re better notified in JIRA where they manage all their other tasks.
Finally, save the document where it’ll be easily located later. In Google Drive, for example, Zapier can add your PDF file to a folder, and rename it to include any details you need for document control.
Publish your automated workflow, and you’ll have an onboarding document control that logs whenever new employees read onboarding material, creates new docs from their info, assigns them to the correct reviewer, and files the documents away for easy reference.

Create the Document Control system your company needs

Now, it’s your turn. Perhaps you want to build a document control system for crucial documents your team references often. You could build a Fillout form to submit the document, use a Zapier workflow to notify reviewers, then log the reviews in an Airtable or Notion database and store the final files in their correct folder.
You could even have an update workflow where your team uploads files to a Fillout form, then a Zap sends them to a reviewer before archiving the original file and replacing it with the new one.
You could store files in Google Drive with details logged in Google Sheets. Or, you could save everything in Airtable or Notion, with a table that includes crucial files and their access logs.
One document at a time, you’ll start chipping away at that 20% of the workweek your team uses searching for documents and looking up data. Document control might be the secret to building a more productive work environment.
Image Credit: Header Photo by Wesley Tingey via Unsplash
Matthew Guay

Written by

Matthew Guay

Matthew Guay is a writer and co-founder of Pith and Pip. He previously was founding editor of Capiche and Zapier’s senior writer and editor.