We’ll stay very pragmatic and very concrete. Do you know the following?
You know that? Which file should you sent to the customer? Which file contains the latest valid state, if any?
The History of Versioning
The history of versioning starts long before our time. Yuval Noah Harari wrote in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind that the invention of writing was only the first step to a higher culture. Yet–and he describes vividly–how could two disputants in Babylon in the big real estate and tax library find the correct plates or have them found by the librarian?
You need a filing system and a method to track changes and ensure that it is always obvious which is the most recent and valid information.
According to Harari bureaucracy is the second important invention allowing higher culture in the first place. This is more than three thousand years in the past.
And now you appear, make changed copies of plates and put them somewhere on the shelf.
Filing as Subject Matter
Ensure a good filing with paper is subject for many professionaly in their vocational education. How a filing shelf system works, how to keep a folder tidy, how to update loose sheet books and how to mark changes on sheets and folders in a way so the next administrator can pick up where she left.
The problem now is that many people dealing with electronic files, never learnt proper paper filing, and others that did learn it try to match those methods directly on files, without embracing the power of software.
When those two kinds of people meet, chaos in digital filing emerges.
Versioning in Software
From software development we know program based versioning. The filing does not by continuous manual and hopefully uniform naming of files for subsequent changes, but in software.
This is not really new. SCCS, the Source Code Control System was one of the first broadly adopted version systems, used already in the early 1970s. This is more than forty years ago, and finally you may acknowledge.
The idea is simple:
Instead of you playing the bookkeeper and store a file as new version and everyone wanting to use the document having to re-think your way of thought, you leave this task to a software.
You just state that there is a new version of the document now. The correct storage and handing out of the latest state to others happens in software. In software development this is standard, and nobody even just half-bakedly developing software would work without a versioning system.
OMG – What Do I Have to Learn Now?
Either a bit or nothing at all, it depends.
So: explicit version systems like Git or Subversion do not bite. At least they don’t bite computer scientists, and all others they do not bite hard. There are fabulous introductions into Git or Subversion for non software developers. Still I understand that the thought of getting a document from the librarian, editing and afterwards tidily handing it back to the librarian might seem strange for many.
But I want to introduce you to some other system that do the versioning of files implicitly, so without you doing anything.
This is because implicit versioning works best when you do not do certain things.
Implicit Versioning in Confluence, SharePoint, OneDrive, Dropbox, Google Drive
In your company or organization you are using Atlassian Confluence, Microsoft SharePoint or OneDrive, Dropbox, or Google G Suite including Google Drive?
Then congratulations, all these systems offer implicit versioning.
Implicit versioning means: You save a file, and in the background the software does not just overwrite the file but keeps it as a new version. All old states of your document you can see in its version history.
Implicit versioning may even include that in Microsoft Word or PowerPoint you can see the changes from version to version, without having activated the change tracking.
Exemplary for all others I would like to show implicit versioning in two systems.
Implicit versioning Confluence
Confluence from Atlassian is an intranet software and not really thought for document storage or management. There are no folders or libaries for files, but they get attached to pages.
Does not matter, versions are kept nevertheless.
To access an old version of a file, on the according Confluence page click the three dots at the upper right corner, and then Attachments. In the subsequent view you can see all versions for each file, and who and when this version was created, and of course download old versions.
For Microsoft Office documents there is a link edit in Office, which instead of downloading does open the file directly from where it is stored. This saves you from the need to re-upload again.
If you downloaded a file for editing, then save it without changing its name, and upload it to the very same Confluence page you got it from.
Rule: No renaming after downloading, do not save with new name. Keep the filename the same.
Implicit Versioning in SharePoint/OneDrive
Microsoft SharePoint and Microsoft OneDrive use the same technology for cloud storage of files in more recent versions, therefore I speak on both of them. Implicit versioning works with older SharePoint releases, too. Additionally, of course it works best with office applications from the same company.
The nice thing here is that e.g. in Word you can compare your document directly with old versions to see changes. Simply click compare in the button bar.
For all other documents the same applies as previously: download, edit, upload with same file name–if you are using SharePoint in your browser. If you use the OneDrive client for your operating system and synchronize the document library to your computer, then it feels like a regular file folder.
Also here: do not rename, not save to another name. Keep the filename the same.
The version history you can find you the web view of the particular folder click the three dots behind each file name. In the folder synchronized to your computer right click the file and see the version context menu entry.
In SharePoint/OneDrive the versioning even works when you are not connected to the network, because folders are kept locally on your computer. When getting online, the system synchronizes all changed files as new versions to the online folder.
Implicit Versioning in Dropbox
On the risk of repeating myself: Similarly it works in Dropbox, which even has a MS Office integration, too. In the synchronized Dropbox folder right click a file and choose Version History.
This opens this file’s properties in the web browser. Voilà, again you see the few latest versions. In the free version of Dropbox just a few, in the paid version a few more.
Also in Dropbox versioning works even when not connected to the internet, because the folders get synchronized locally to your computer. With the next synchronization your system uploads all offline edited files as new versions to your online folder.
So What Do I Do Now?
It is not that hard:
No suffixes for filenames, neither date nor your name nor a number. All that your versioning system knows and displays on request.
Even if you are using a system not discussed here for intranet or file storage, it is likely that you have implicit versioning there, too. Ask your IT or your computer affine colleague.
If your system does not offer implicit versioning, it might pay out to use a separate versioning system like Git, but that will be another blog post.
Your computer does not bite, but support you in your work. But only if you let it do so.