The New World of Document Control Workflow

For many organizations, the document control function was the down-in-the-basement department, mainly viewed as the overseers of the large-format engineering drawings created over the years. They were the vault owners; the watch dogs for the repository. As more and more drawings and documents became digital their role expanded into managing the organization’s electronic files, mainly using shares on the network. But they were still the caretakers of the company’s intellectual property (IP).

As file exchange became electronic as well, mainly using FTP sites and attachments to email, the document control group became the lynchpin for coordinating the transmittal and submittal workflow of drawings and documents to and from vendors, contractors, customers and other third parties (including regulators). To many, the role morphed from one of warden to one of facilitator, though still with remnants of being the gatekeepers.

We now come to a watershed moment for this function as they are put in a complex and difficult position of owning the digital transformation for many companies, while also playing point on the growing requirements for information distribution and collaboration workflows, all under the roof of ever increasing security concerns. A rather large leap from the initial sleepy, “basement dwelling” function.

Document control, including CAD document management and product data management — the current-day digital IP — is now responsible for one of the most valuable assets in the organization and being asked to secure the assets while providing more and more access to them by users and third parties.

Leading the Digital Transformation

The first step for most organizations during this digital transformation alignment is to recognize the document control group needs to be upgraded, from a lower-level administrative department to a high-level technology group leading the charge in the organization’s digitalization efforts. This means ensuring the department has not only highly competent, technology savvy individuals but also by giving them the technology resources needed to get the job done.

The department name may soon become a misnomer as the concept of digital assets grows and companies understand much of their intellectual property, and much of the day-to-day workflows, are embedded in digital files, messages and images. Whereas the primary purview of the document control group was the management of paper, requirements now demand the group manage non-paper, which in many ways means changing their workflows as well.

Product data management (PDM) and product lifecycle management (PLM) workflow systems have become sophisticated enough that their use and management across the enterprise has to be overseen, distributed and trained on. This means document controllers need to learn new systems and new skills, including training. Similar to when document control departments were formed to funnel and control the essential engineering documents and product data documents, so too should the group be the handler and supervisor for the digital assets.

Like other transformative processes, moving to digital asset management requires full support and resourcing from senior management. In a recent McKinsey article, it was shown that as companies digitize their processes top-line growth actually slows, but overall profitability growth increases. Though a bit counterintuitive, this digital transformation means greater competition and reduced product development cycles, ultimately forcing down the growth in the revenue curves. But the internal improvement in productivity, error reduction, time to market, and labor input means profitability increases at a greater growth rate, a typical industrial investment scenario.

It’s More Than Just “Controlling” Documents

As information has become almost totally digital, the control of documents in the organization becomes the governor on the pace and ubiquity of many of the company workflows. The movement of secured digital files to users, vendors/contractors, approvers, revisers, and reviewers is an integral part of many workflows from design, to QA, to production, to customer support, to sales, to finance and even to legal.

The upgrade to the resourcing and competency of the document control group has a substantial ripple effect throughout the organization. This impact is subtler than say bringing in a new accounting system or new CFO, where specific capabilities or talents are being brought to bear. Here, the tentacles of where, how, when, and the security of the information impacts workflows and results throughout the company. There is no particular expertise focused on a particular function or department, the proficiency is in the art of information distribution, security and relevancy.

For document-centric workflows, the next step in elevating productivity is about getting the right information to the right people at the right time, as quickly and efficiently as possible. For example, getting product schematics to the production floor the minute QA or R&D have released the information with the assurance that all the appropriate reviewers and approvers have completed their tasks. Delays, of course, cost time to market and productivity. Errors in the information cost rework and productivity. Using the wrong version of the information costs rework, possible legal issues and productivity.

Where Does Document Control Play in the ERP Environment

Many companies have grown and implemented ERP systems, like SAP, that provide cross-functional, cross-department processing of key workflows. Though many of these workflows involve digital assets (e.g., invoices, employee records, orders), they are often process-centric. For these processes, the digital asset is useful in completing the task, yet not the object of the task. For instance, the creation of an engineering change order and its approval is a document-centric workflow where the creation of the digital asset is the focus of the effort.

So, document control plays the role of librarian for the supply of information for process-centric workflows, but more importantly, should be the facilitators of the document-centric workflows in the organization. Using the appropriate tools, these workflows are started, monitored, managed and ultimately completed. Because these workflows cut across the company, the systems used must be robust, stable, and most importantly simple to understand and use. We have found companies trying to use their engineering systems to manage these cross-functional workflows only to find the non-engineering users become frustrated with the systems as they are not designed for non-engineers and are often overly technical – just not simple to understand and use.

Document Control Going Forward

Those companies that invest more in their document control people and systems will make more profit, but only if senior management commits to the investment needed. The digital transformation is growing and momentum is gaining steam. For companies aligning themselves to this transformation, ground zero, can be, and should be the document control group, the leaders of the digitalization initiatives for their company. Getting the best people for this group and funding system resources, such as engineering document management (EDMS) and digital workflow management systems, creates a competitive advantage for those companies who embrace the digital transformation versus those who don’t.

Scott Brandt is President and CEO of eQuorum, provider of one of the first engineering workflow SaaS systems.