Whether you realize it or not, everything has a lifecycle. The software development lifecycle, the business lifecycle, and many more. Of course, there’s also a document lifecycle that you may be following unintentionally.

When you’re deliberate about how you go through the document lifecycle, you can create better outcomes for yourself and the people you work with. This guide will share what the document lifecycle is, the different stages, and how you can use it to your advantage.

What is the document lifecycle?

Put simply, the document lifecycle is a series of steps a document passes through from creation down to permanent archival or deletion.

The document lifecycle can be further divided into digital, physical (also referred to as analog), or hybrid but these types follow the same general lifecycle. The major difference are the tools available at each stage of the process.

Why does the document lifecycle matter?

It’s important to understand the stages of the document lifecycle and how that fits into your organization to properly plan your content management, contract management, and information security.

If you have no idea what’s going on at each stage of the document lifecycle in your organization, there is no way to properly plan for security and optimization.

For example, if there’s no person or job function responsible for creating specific types of documents, how will you standardize those documents, set up a proper signing workflow, and eventually automate them? If there’s no document storage system for digital and or physical documents, how can you ensure everything is in the right place and properly secured?

Let’s take a look at the six stages of the document lifecycle and what to expect in each one.

Stages of the document lifecycle

There are many substages in the document lifecycle and some people have different schools of thought. You may see that there are seven stages or five stages and they may have different names.

All of them tend to follow the same process which we’ll cover below.

Document creation

This is always the first step because if a document doesn’t exist then it cannot go through the lifecycle process.

The creation stage involves composing a document from scratch and modifying existing documents with the aim of using it for a new situation. For example, you may have a standard NDA agreement template that you modify every time you enter into a new partnership.

The NDA agreement template you’re pulling from would be in the storage and distribution stages of the document lifecycle. The new document you make from the template is in the creation stage of its lifecycle.

Documents can be created using a variety of tools such as Microsoft Word, Google Docs, Pages, document generation applications, etc. It can also be created by hand (written out) and then transferred to a word processor for further editing and approval.

One method of document creation that is becoming more and more popular is document automation. Instead of manually modifying a template every time you need it, the process happens automatically in the background using software tools.

Document creation most straightforward aspect of the document lifecycle and doesn’t usually have many considerations beyond finishing the document.

Editing and approval

After the draft of the document has been completed, it needs to be edited and approved. Oftentimes, this step is combined with the document creation step – especially when the same person is editing the document.

The reason why it’s separate here is that it’s good practice to have one person create the document and another person do the final round of editing. Mistakes that are invisible to the initial creator can be caught.

As soon as the document is edited, approval takes place. This can be the same person that edits it or it can be another person. Oftentimes, what they’ll look for is the language used in the document, the clauses if it’s a contract, and general errors.

At this stage in the process, there should be a way to document that approval has been given. It could be simple like making a note in your project management tool or signing off on an approval document.

Once it has been edited and final approval has been given, you can move on to the next stage.

Storage

Storage often occurs in a way that makes distribution simple. For example, for most organizations, the document wouldn’t be stored on the computer of the CEO. Rather, it would be stored in a central repository where permissions can be given to people based on certain criteria.

This is the stage of the document lifecycle where security becomes more important. Who has access, what can someone do with the document within the storage, how long will it be stored before it needs to be reviewed, etc.?

Then, when storing it, you need to consider the security of the storage medium. For example, if it’s stored in your office, is it under lock and key? Who has access to that? If it’s stored online, what security measures are put in place to safeguard your data?  

Storage often happens at the same time as distribution because the document is distributed from the place it’s stored.  

Distribution, retrieval, and usage

People are familiar with this stage and the first stage. We’re constantly sharing documents. This may be to get an opinion on them, send them to vendors or clients, and everything in between.

How do you distribute documents? Do you share a link that expires after some time? Do you share a link they can only access via their email? Do you physically send it to them?

There are so many ways to carry out distribution with the aim of making the document usable by third parties. Most document storage solutions today have some kind of sharing function that will allow you to send documents to third parties with a few button clicks.

If you’re following ISO 9001 and ISO 13485 guidelines, it’s essential that documents are easy to access for the final user.

Version control

Documents change over time for various reasons. Maybe your processes have improved or transformed, new laws require modification, or you’ve decided to change and standardize the language that’s used within your documents.

Irrespective of the reason why things change, it’s important to be able to monitor any differences in documents. That way, you’ll be able to quickly catch and correct mistakes that may have been made during the process.

The version control you adopt should be able to tell you what was changed, who changed it, and where the new version of the document is being used now.

For example, if an unauthorized change was made to a document that tells your software development team what to work on, it should be clear what’s different at a glance. From there, corrective measures can be taken.

Unfortunately, version control is much more difficult if you’re using paper documents. This is another reason why you should be moving to digital document management.

Version control will also prevent you from having to do a total review of a document that has been modified. This can save a lot of time when you’re dealing with long and or complex documents.

Permanent archival or destruction

The last step in the document lifecycle is taking the document out of circulation. This can be done by destroying it or storing it in a way that everyone knows it’s no longer in use – this is what is meant by archival.

In most cases, you want to archive a document instead of deleting it to keep a paper trail of previous documents. They can serve as a reference for how you arrived at your current situation.

Another reason for deliberate archiving is because of regulations. The documents may not be useful but laws require you to keep them for a certain amount of time. Putting documents in an archive will also prevent your workflow from being bogged down in obsolete paperwork.

Instead of having to navigate around the documentation you no longer need, store them in a separate place that isn’t part of the standard workflow.

Of course, even archived documents may need to be deleted or destroyed at some point but that should be well-defined as part of the document’s lifecycle. For example, you may keep receipts for 3 years in line with IRS guidelines but keep contracts for 20 years based on internal guidelines.

Depending on the volume of documents your organization creates, you may need to consider the cost of storage and adjust your archive timeframes accordingly.  

Conclusion

The document lifecycle is an important consideration for how you manage and share documents. Knowing the stages can help you properly plan and even automate your workflows so you can focus on the more important tasks in your organization.

Creating an end-to-end process takes time but it’s worth it once you’ve dialed it in. Once the process has been created, you can then start automating your document-related processes with confidence.

Let me know what you think in the comments and don’t forget to share.