No self-respecting professional wants to be known as a paper pusher or bureaucrat, but it can be a hard label for them to avoid when they’re managing projects. Projects create paper, or more specifically, they create documents. Whether those documents are paper or electronic, they can take on a life of their own. Updating, circulating and basically babysitting documents can consume managers’ time, distracting them from more productive tasks.
It’s not as though documentation is just mindless paperwork. Properly managed, documentation is the primary vehicle for information sharing between project stakeholders. It helps keep projects on schedule and under budget. However, project managers can easily fall into the trap of reflexively producing piles of paperwork without knowing why. In extreme cases, poorly managed documentation can make projects fail. In other situations, ineffective project managers can use documentation to conceal a project’s real status and shift focus from themselves.
The Perils of Bad Document Strategy
Most organizations do not have project document strategies that promote effective information sharing. This often-overlooked dimension of project management can cause:
- Poor visibility: Documents are self-contained islands of information that do not exchange information. This isolation causes redundancy and information overload.
- Weak security: Documents aren’t protected by business rules and workflows that create audit trails and accountability around sensitive documents. The lack of controls can cause critical project information to end up in the wrong hands.
- Data loss: Many project management organizations do not store their documentation in a single repository. Decentralized storage makes key documents easier to lose and difficult to access, and it erodes the integrity of data that could end up in decision-making reports.
- Limited collaboration: Project documents are often unstructured data in emails, on local hard drives, or on paper. These documents are not easily shared among project stakeholders.
Project document management best practices can eliminate these problems and turn documents into the asset they are, instead of the nuisance they’re often treated as.
Best Practice Basics
An effective project document management strategy will have one fundamental goal: to get the right knowledge into the right hands at the right time. There are many sub-factors that contribute to reaching that goal, but all roads end at using knowledge as a competitive advantage.
The primary obstacle to effectively managing project documents is the sheer volume of information in them. Documents start stacking up before projects even begin. Project managers write feasibility studies, resource, financial and product plans to help executives decide whether to approve projects.
Once approved, projects generate more information in the form of supplier contracts, change request forms, project status reports, post-implementation reviews, etc. These documents are all designed to facilitate project planning, tracking and reporting. By the end of a project, the manager can have produced as many as 50 different types of documents.
The first best practice that project management can implement to make sense of this information crush is to establish four phases and categorize every document into one of them:
- Project Definition or Conception: In this phase, the project charter document is at the heart of initiation. Defining the charter and the details surrounding the project’s objectives are key drivers in building the project’s road to success.
- Project Planning: In this phase, the project leadership plans for the unexpected. The documents detailing the project plan, scheduling of resources, client agreements and risk management, house the strategic details of the project.
- Project Execution: In this phase, tracking and reacting are the name of the game. Here the project documents are delivering the actual and updates to the project plan. Tracking cost, time, physical progress and emerging issues are documented in this phase.
- Project Closure: In this phase, documents will detail outstanding issues and/or deliverables, review of project outcome, and best practices project management processes to be utilized for future use.
There are several best practice elements found in the document management world that can be applied to project management practitioners. If observed, these practices improve the flow of information between project stakeholders. There are a variety of technologies and process models for performing each of these best practices. Choose the best ones for your budget, technical competence, etc., but make sure that after everything is bought and implemented, you can perform these best practices:
- Document capture: Have a process for capturing documents in any format in a central repository where they’re indexed logically, archived securely, and retrieved easily.
- Version control: Check-in and check-out options and customizable levels of security, such as read and write access, ensure the integrity of stored documents.
- Workflow: The ability to design and apply configurable workflows that map to the business processes and approval workflow of documents in your organizations.
- Reporting and analysis: the ability to exchange information between documents, as well as consolidate data in multiple documents for reporting and analysis purposes to provide better visibility across your organization.
- Collaboration: The ability to share documents among relevant stakeholders, as well as restrict the documents to those who should not have access.
These are quantifiable business benefits that justify the relatively modest investment it takes to implement document management policies and technologies to support project management. Companies that treat documents as a necessary evil deprive themselves of a valuable tool for helping project team members work toward common goals, stay on schedule and within budget. Widely proven document management best practices for storing, managing and tracking documents and records can improve information flow, cut overhead and administrative errors. If documents aren’t achieving those ends, they’re just words.