19th Jun 2010 AUTHOR: Robert Machin

Document Version Control: Set Up Your Protocol First, Save Stress Later

Many clients report Document Version Control grief at some point in most tender responses; usually when time is critical and tempers are frayed.


  • Set up your document version control protocol early in your project
  • Appoint someone to monitor and manage the process
  • Create and publish clear instructions to all contributors

Most assume that Word Processing software will take care of this process

The Challenge - the frustration!

Okay, so you had your project kick-off meeting, the ground rules were set, one person was assigned the responsibility of managing the master document and then, you discover there are duplicate versions of essential documents in the system. Someone has compromised the process by copying a master document and working on it separately. Meanwhile someone else has created their own version unaware that there are already two versions in the system.

Which version is correct? Whose version takes precedence?

Or perhaps someone has put in a big night only to return the following day to find someone has updated the word processing file and overwritten all of their hard work.

Sound familiar?

Track and change - the solution?

While word processors provide such tools as "track and change" few users really understand how to use this tool properly.

Moreover, when two, three or more people are working on the same document these 'marked-up' versions can become very complex to read.

Add to this, the challenge of knowing which update or version is correct, and you can find yourself managing a very messy document. And, at a time when everyone is under significant stress to meet their deadlines and when every minute counts.

Case Study: A very large tender response when the scenario above became a reality.

With seventy (70) subject matter experts (SMEs) contributing to the response this problem was causing considerable frustration, to put it politely. Sections that had been signed-off by the business owner and checked for legal compliance had found their way back into the system causing confusion and irritation all around. The anguish on the project manager's face said it all. What was to be done?

It wasn't easy. A manual process was devised which involved attaching colour-coded cover sheets to each section of the response. Each cover sheet detailed the time, date and initials of the person updating the version. Each version was initialled by the original composer, reviewer, editor, legal compliance, business owner etc. Drafts one, two, three and "final" were colour-coded and kept for reference. Strict control of each document via a central repository got matters under control.

The Lesson?

  • Establish a document version control process at the outset of the project
  • Ensure there is only one version of the document or section in existence at any one time
  • Issue clear written instructions to all contributors - SMEs, reviewers and editors
  • Funnel all drafts and edits of the document through a single person
  • Maintain a log of the drafts
  • Appoint a 'book boss' to manage all versions of the response in concert with those responsible for final publishing

Aren't There Systems or tools that can perform these tasks for you?

You may well ask. Yes, there are systems out there that can manage such complexity but market research indicates that these are usually designed for publishing houses or large corporations and are prohibitively expensive for the average company unless this type of work is your core business. Further, such systems demand the same hygiene factors detailed above - albeit within the system.

Other applications such as Google Docs and DropBox enable you to share simple documents but there's a long way to go until large 'commercial in confidence' documents could be managed in this way.

The challenge of document version control is often overlooked when setting up a tender response project. This is because most assume that there are systems and tools embedded in word processing software that will take care of this process. For large tender responses word processing applications have serious limitations: this will be the subject of a future article. "Track and change" is a useful tool for an individual who wants to keep track of his/her numerous drafts; it may also be useful when one of two people are working on the same document on the same system. However, when numerous people are working on the same document across different workplaces and systems then managing numerous versions can be a real challenge.

robRob Machin is a principal consultant for Tender Success. For more than 25 years, he has successfully managed tenders worth more than $6 billion dollars. Contact Rob to ensure your next response is a success.