No more mystery documents!

It’s surprising how many organizations have real problems with mystery documents — memos, studies, plans, proposals, etc. that carry absolutely no information about why the document was created, or when, or by whom.

Here’s what usually happens when somebody receives a mystery document.

  • The document quickly gets printed, skimmed, and buried in a pile with the person’s other paperwork.
  • When the document is found again, two weeks later, the recipient has no idea whatsoever about who it came from or what it is.
  • And because the recipient has no idea where the master electronic copy of the document is, he has no way of determining if he is even looking at the most recent version of the document.

What is surprising is that this kind of confusion occurs in so many organizations, when it is so easy to prevent.

The solution is simple.  Require that:

  • every document shall have a “master” electronic copy — preferably one that is stored in some public place.  For important documents, this should be a public place controlled by a version control or document management system such as PVCS, Subversion, CVS, Perforce, etc.
  • every document shall include a standard 4-line header and an introduction.  One of the lines of the 4-line header specifies the location of the master copy of the document

If such a standard were put into place, then there should never be any question or confusion about what the document is, or who wrote it, or where the master copy is stored, or about which version is the most recent version.

This is not rocket science.  Remember how your sixth-grade teacher required you to put your name on your homework before handing it in?  And your name had to be in the upper-right-hand corner of the first page?  And if it wasn’t, she wouldn’t accept your homework?  This is the same thing.  This is grade-school stuff.


Requirement

All documents shall include a standard 4-line header and an introduction.

Four-line Header

The header must be the very first thing in the document, appearing at the top of page one. It must give the following four pieces of information, in the following order.

Subject: <document title>
Contacts: <names of authors or contact persons>
Revised: <last revision date>
Location: <storage location of master copy>

Location information indicates the location of the master electronic copy of the document. It consists of as much of the path name of the file as possible.  Use the UNC file name, including the server and share name, where possible. For example:

\myserver1\bigproject\plans\phase1\this_document_name.doc

If the master copy of the document is under the control of document management software, the location identifies the document management system and provides enough additional information to locate a file within that system. For example:

<department name> CVS: <project folder>/<file name>

Introduction Section

Immediately after the header (and after the title page and table of contents, if the document has them) must be an Introduction Section.  It should bear the title “Introduction” and should contain a few short paragraphs that describe the contents and purpose of the document.  As appropriate, the introduction should provide background or context information for the document.

Other Sections

The remaining sections of the document should bear appropriate section names, or simply a name like “Discussion”.

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2 thoughts on “No more mystery documents!

  1. Much of what you say is correct. The document problem you talk about was was solved in the dead tree era by the aerospace industry. Your solution leaves out the important point of tracking all revisions of a document. instead of one line giving the last revision date you need a dedicated section listing all revisions of a document and a numbering system so that each revision can be tracked.

    • @James Thiele: “instead of one line giving the last revision date you need a dedicated section listing all revisions of a document and a numbering system so that each revision can be tracked.”

      No, you don’t. That’s what keeping the master copies in a document management system or under version control is for.

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