Project documentation - what you should bear in mind

A project is embedded in an environment, it is influenced by people, it produces something new, and it evolves because many heads and hands contribute to it. In order to keep track, analyses and sketches of ideas, plans and protocols, contracts and much more need to be documented. This leads to project documentation requirements that are driven by the people involved and the factors that influence the project.
Books stand on a shelf.


Documentation, documents and document management - what are the differences?

Documentation plays a central role in any project. Regardless of the type of information carrier, the documentation process involves 
  • creating, labelling and recording
  • compressing, preparing and updating
  • distributing, archiving and destroying of documents.
Documents are records that are worth keeping and that can be made available through document management on information carriers of all kinds (e.g. on paper, hard disks, flash drives or CDs). A document is worth keeping if it describes obligations for the future, if it contains specifications for work processes or interim results, or if it serves as proof of results achieved. The content of a document becomes binding with the signature of the creator and, if necessary, with the signature of the recipient confirming his or her agreement.
The role of document management is now to be able to provide any document required on any subject with reasonable effort. Document management is not responsible for the content, completeness and accuracy of a document. 
All this can be very time-consuming and costly, but none of it should be neglected, because even the best memories of project staff can never compensate for missing, outdated and incomplete documents.

Project documentation requirements

At the very beginning of the project, the project manager must decide what the project documentation will look like. He or she must decide how to manage logs, reports, agreements, drawings and all other project documents so that they are available in the right form, at the right time and in the right place.
The essential requirement for project documentation is to ensure high quality project work, and this is only possible if
  • project members have access to relevant documents at all times,
  • the documents reflect the current status
  • the documents are easy to find, and
  • the documents make the project steps and results understandable.

Project file for project documentation

The project-related documents may, for example, be available in the form of a project file on the Internet or in a project information system on a central drive on the company network. In practice, other terms are used for the project file, such as project folder or project manual. 
The project file is the summary of the objectives and tasks, organisation and planning, plan update and documentation for the individual project. The project file ensures the quality of a project in terms of performance, time and cost. 
Before project documents are released for use by team members, they must be reviewed and approved by authorised personnel for accuracy, completeness and appropriateness. A change history or document tracking procedure that identifies the revision status of documents prevents employees from using invalid or outdated documents. The resulting documentation and archiving provide evidence that effective project management is being carried out and that the project is meeting the requirements set out in the project file. In this way, the knowledge gained can be preserved and used as a basis for planning a similar project at a later date, or for setting up a new project team. 
However, it is not only important to archive documents properly in order to be able to make the best use of the know-how and knowledge gained in the future, but also because there are so-called retention periods that must be set for all project documents by those responsible in the organisation. In addition, there are legal requirements that must be checked and complied with. The project management must also make the project documents available to the client or its representative for evaluation for an agreed period of time, if this is contractually agreed.

The project specific document centre

In smaller projects, all binding project documents should be managed by the project manager. In larger projects, on the other hand, it is important to set up a dedicated document centre at the start of the project. Some companies see this as the "home of their know-how and know-why". The main task of a document centre is to be able to provide the required document for any question in a reasonable time. Other tasks are:
  • Create, implement and apply a single, consistent label for all project documents.
  • Register all project documents with document management data (e.g. creator, creation date, distribution list, version, cause and date of change). 
  • Monitor change management and systematically distribute approved change documents.
  • Establish and maintain a filing system (documents can only be considered project binding if they are available in the document centre).
  • Produce handover documentation for project transferees (e.g. customer department) and own maintenance units.

However, the document centre is not responsible for the completeness and timeliness of the document content.

Labelling and registration of project documents

The planning, creation, review, approval, distribution and filing of documents should be carried out in regulated work processes and in a sensible sequence. A consistent, understandable and consistently used labelling system must be developed and implemented to manage the documents created. For example, in the case of physical products, companies work with hierarchical parts lists, in the IT sector with the labelling of programme modules and in civil engineering with the labelling of structures and service areas. 
The identification of document types must include codes for classic (paper) documents (e.g. circuit diagrams, contracts, logs) as well as for file names (e.g. CAD, graphics, text and spreadsheet files). Like most object keys, these key systems are structured hierarchically.
Document identification systems usually follow the same pattern: they separate minimum and additional identifiers. This means that the minimum identifier contains identifiers for the project (e.g. cost unit number or project name), the document content (e.g. object identifier from the work breakdown structure) and the document type (e.g. drawing type, inspection record). The minimum identifier makes it easy to find the document you are looking for. The additional identifiers concern, for example, the document creator, creation date, distribution list, version, status, reason for change and change approval, and other applicable documents.
The minimum identifier should be defined as the project's own and parent identifier, especially in projects with external suppliers. The customer or project sponsor should have the final say, as they will have to work with the identifier until the end of the project's life. In order to be able to correspond with the project contractor's suppliers regarding maintenance, repairs and reordering of spare parts, the project contractor must not only hand over an inventory list of all documents handed over with the project documentation, but also provide this list with the original identifiers of the subcontractors' documents.
A simple, effective tool for determining document requirements during project execution and for preparing handover documentation is a document requirements matrix. It is based on the axes of document content and document type. This matrix can be part of the appendix of a project contract, as it standardises the work processes and the resulting documents in projects with a repetitive character.

Concluding words

In summary, project documentation is a set of procedures for working with documents that can be provided by document management. It is important that the type and labelling of documentation is clearly defined and recorded in a project file. It can be said that project documentation ensures that work is carried out in a transparent and traceable manner.

Project documentation - The Author
Keywords: Project management, Tips, Project documentation

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