What is the document life cycle?

With enterprises constantly creating new documents, tracking and organizing them all can be a struggle. Eighty-two percent of employees say poorly managed information negatively impacts their productivity, while 65 percent say they run into challenges in the process of checking and approving office documents.

Document management software and other tools can help solve these problems, but you need to oversee every step of each document’s journey to make sure nothing gets lost. Understanding the document life cycle can help organizations integrate and optimize their workflows, avoiding document loss, redundancy, and other inefficiencies.

In this article, you’ll learn about the document life cycle and the four stages to keep in mind when evaluating your documentation processes.

What is the document life cycle?

The document life cycle is the sequence of stages a document goes through from creation to eventual archival or destruction.

This is a key concept in the practice of enterprise document management, a term that describes an organization’s strategy and processes for organizing, storing, and delivering operational documents.

The document life cycle transcends any single software solution, as a document may pass through a number of tools over time, such as word processing software, file sharing and storage solutions, e-signature apps, and more.

All documents go through the following four basic stages regardless of industry, document type, or technologies used. These stages may overlap at times; in some cases, documents move back and forth between stages. When looking to optimize your document workflows, keep all four stages in mind to ensure you have the right tools you need for each step — and that they connect as seamlessly as possible.

The 4 stages of the document life cycle

1. Document creation

The first stage of the document life cycle is creation. People typically create new documents using word processing software such as Microsoft Word and Google Docs.

They may create these documents or use an existing document as a template; they might also use a document automation solution. Document automation tools help users generate new documents and document sets from templates and conditional form fields.

Document creation also applies to existing documents you have newly digitized. The vast majority of business documents are still on paper, and as such, may require digitization using a scanner, OCR software, or other digitization technologies. Once someone “creates” a document in digital form, it moves onto the next stage, which is storage.

2. Document storage

Once someone creates a document, it must be securely stored with a cloud storage provider, on an internal server, or in a document management or content management system. Storage is an ongoing activity, as an organization might store documents in different places depending on where they are in their life cycle, how an organization is using them, and who needs to access them.

For someone to easily retrieve and access a document when needed, it must be properly categorized and organized within the storage solution. Document tags and metadata give the document context so your document management system can store and display it appropriately.

A tag can be a simple label or a series of labels that provide information about the document’s contents and purpose. Users can assign relevant tags manually, or software that crawls the document’s contents can automatically suggest tags based on keywords and other information.

3. Document sharing and delivery

At this point in the life cycle, a document is active and fulfilling its purpose. An organization may distribute it internally (such as a memo), send it externally (such as with a sales proposal, quote, or contract), or store it in a file-sharing system as reference material.

  • Internal workflows. Once someone creates a document, it may go through various stages internally for further collaboration, such as an editing process, review by multiple parties or departments, or an approval process. Access control and permissions functionality are key for this stage in the life cycle. For instance, a new client contract may require input from sales, accounting, legal, and management before you can send it to the client.
  • External delivery and tracking. Many organizations create documents solely for internal use and never share them outside the organization. However, if someone creates a document to send to an external party, such as a client contract, they will need to send it to the appropriate party and track it to ensure it meets the objective. An e-signature solution may be useful at this stage of the life cycle.

4. Document archival or deletion

Most documents have a limited active life. Once a document has achieved its objective or a newer version or document supersedes it, the document becomes inactive. It will then need to go into secure storage for whatever time period is appropriate — this usually depends on the type of document.

To reduce clutter and protect sensitive data, it’s important to securely archive or destroy inactive documents. Tools like records management systems ensure you can methodically and securely archive documents. 
By connecting your organization’s various tools and daily workflows with the entire document life cycle in mind, you can ensure your document-related processes are as efficient and complete as possible — saving time, avoiding redundancies, and enhancing security.

This article is originally published on Mar 04, 2021, and updated on Mar 16, 2021.
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