17 October 2012 by Fionnuala Cousins
Delving Into the Controversies of… Document Numbering
At this month’s IM Energy Forum we discussed that most scintillating of topics; Document Numbering! We had 10 companies represented, all with views and questions, which combined for a lively debate and some interesting food for thought for everyone to consider back in their day jobs./p>
On the surface, Document Numbering can seem quite simple. Numbering allows you to assign totally unique identifiers to your documents. If you don’t have unique identifiers for each document, you have no categorical means of differentiating between them. With collections of upwards of one million documents in one organisation alone, mistakes can happen. Thus, the central intent of document numbering is to ensure that business decisions are not unknowingly based on the wrong information sources. This, we agreed upon.
Numbering arose in the days of hardcopy, logical filing structures and single filing locations; you have to file items where other people will find them and you can’t file a single hardcopy document in two places. Guidance on where to file a document can be derived from its metadata and a convenient summary of this guidance could be built into the document number, e.g. HR-POL-293 as a document number indicates that the item should be filed in the HR Policies folder. The number is said to be ‘intelligent’. A purely sequential number would not be able to communicate this. You may still have metadata from which this information can be derived, but it is not conveniently packaged.
Then came technology! We now use electronic files where possible and we manage them through a Document Management System (DMS). Metadata is easily accessible and using it, items like HR Policies can be grouped directly without requiring repetition in the document number. Additionally, regardless of if we assign built numbers, the DMS will assign unique system identifiers not usually visible to the end user. So, the question is, do we still need to bother assigning intelligent numbers?
The discussion of this question last week became quite heated.
Personally I felt torn between questioning if there is a business need and my natural urge to classify and organise. I went into the discussion leaning toward my urges, I came out not so sure. The point was very clearly made that an intelligent document number is a repetition of what has already been captured across multiple metadata fields. Based on those fields, a document can be presented as a part of various different collections e.g. as one of all the HR documents, or all the Policies, or all documents created since 1999, or created by Jo Bloggs or whatever. From the user’s perspective, this looks like the document has been filed in multiple locations, when in fact it’s because there is a sufficiently rich metadata set in the DMS to allow the same document to be presented in different scenarios.
So, in most cases, it is entirely believable that there is no need for a document number on the user side. But that is possibly not true in all cases. The example discussed was a black start scenario off-shore; a total power failure requires the application of the safe start –up procedure. Total power failure = no DMS; the Offshore Installation Manager (OIM) has to retrieve the hardcopy emergency procedure. In this scenario, the document number could be one of the items the OIM checks to make sure he/she has the correct procedure. However, there would be other aids also.
In addition, the HR Policy number above does not tell you which policy it is, so similarly, the emergency procedure document number may not communicate which emergency procedure it is. At the same time, other, more targeted measures should be in place to ensure that the right document, and only the right document, is available and used in this scenario. It doesn’t seem justified to expend effort adding a debatably small bit of assurance to something that should already be sufficiently assured by other means. So not even this example has me convinced.
Add to this the massive challenge of resolving legacy document numbering schemes and different current schemes for different current document types. Technical document numbers typically hold a more granular level of information regarding the document. Where an IT Procedure may only need IT-PRO-180, a technical drawing may be numbered WYT-ALB-I-LD-225-02. Couple this with legacy sets which could have equally granular but incompatible numbering schemes and you end up with inconsistency across your whole collection, possibly to the point that from the user perspective and maybe even for your Information Management staff, your intelligent numbers are not intelligent.
The attendees at the Forum meeting shared my discomfort. It’s unsettling to think that you are possibly expending a considerable amount of effort that delivers little or no value to the user. That may be an exaggeration and I certainly don’t think there has been enough consideration to identify all the potential situations in which numbering will add value. But I’m learning not to trust my need to organise!
This will not be the last of our discussions on this topic so if you are interested in being involved in the IM Energy Forum, please contact me (Fionnuala.email@example.com) for more details.