Enterprise content management – The art of document numbering

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Document numbering continues to be a problem that most organizations struggle with. Read further to learn how your firm can overcome this challenge.

In all enterprise content management initiatives, one topic that always gets teams across organizational departments passionate is the question of how to establish a document numbering standard.

Content tagging capabilities of the digital age enables a more accurate and effective taxonomy as opposed to conventional “smart numbering” techniques used across organizations.

The format of the number, what “intelligence” it should hold, and its adoption and standardization across the organization are always highly debated. In project after project, we’ve been part of drawn-out conversations about how to formulate this one “universal numbering convention” so it would flow seamlessly across departmental and regional boundaries

Perhaps it’s time for organizations to take a step back and rethink this matter. Let’s start with the basics:

We all understand why a document needs a number; it’s how we uniquely identify a document. The question is, why does it need to have an explicit format? Some common answers:

  1. “We need to be able to look at the number and quickly identify the content”
  2. “We need the number to clearly communicate and identify deliverables we receive and send to our organization’s third-party vendors, contractors, etc.”
  3. “We really need all this metadata inside the number, so we can better collate our documents.”

The list goes on.

Much of the reasoning is reminiscent of the physical paper age. Organizations that deal with paper have a strong need to put “intelligence” in a number to answer the questions listed above. This “intelligence” could represent the type of document, what organizational discipline it belongs to, whether it was meant for internal or external consumption, and so on.

So, a typical document number could look something like this:

CORP-HR-INT-123456

CORP = CORPORATE. Representing geographic organizational location

HR = Human Resources. Representing the organization business community

INT = Internal. To distinguish the audience for the document.

123456 = Sequence number based upon the combination of the metadata combination.

The above number is, again, just an illustration of how the numbering protocol discussion in any organization unfolds and evolves over the years.

Move forward to the current digital age where the actual content is stored in a digital repository and gets “classified” using metadata tags. Taking the example above, this organization would decide that, to properly categorize the document and facilitate searching for it in the future it needs to capture the following metadata tags to create or import a new document electronically:

Location – for example, corporate or regional

Discipline – for example, HR, legal, engineering, etc.

Document type – for example, drawing, specification, manuals, etc.

Given that the content has already been electronically categorized, there’s no need to assign a number to capture some of the metadata values as part of its numbering schema.

The numbering scheme of this document could be completely insignificant – which is a paradigm shift from paper-driven processes and procedures. Digital content can be easily searched using the tags assigned to them. There’s, of course, no need to view file boxes and navigate file shelves using a numbering schema that was representative of the document you’re looking for. All the details that describe the document are inherent as tags associated with the document. In addition, these tags would provide a far more complete description of the underlying content as opposed to a number.

For organizations that still need a formal document number containing some metadata (as per the example above), that number can easily be created dynamically using the inherent tags associated with the document.

Apart from simplifying the process, there’s another major benefit of this approach. Using this non-significant number approach makes it possible to completely isolate the impact of organizational changes on the numbering scheme down the road.

What does this mean? Taking the example above, consider two disciplines getting merged or a company going through restructuring. With a document numbering scheme containing metadata values, the organization must then go through the tedious rationalization process of “mapping” legacy document numbers to a new one. This could become an extremely painful exercise that gets magnified based upon how integrated the content management system is to other IT systems in the organization.

Document numbering continues to be a problem that most organizations struggle with. Driving consensus between departments within the same regions and globally remains a highly challenging and time-consuming activity. The net result of determining the right set of metadata values in the number, in most cases, is not something that is sustainable given the dynamics of most organizations.

Let’s give back time to all parties involved in this endeavor by steering the discussion towards non-significant document numbering. Let us truly embrace the benefits of a digital content repository where content is searchable by how it’s tagged and not via an “intelligent” document number.

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