What’s in A Name? – Effective Document Control

John F. Gravel

“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together”- Vincent Van Gogh.

What you name a document can seem like a very small thing, but it’s a little thing with a lot of power. Applying standard rules to document names, known as naming conventions, can facilitate their storage and retrieval and make for smoother workflows. A weak document management system is an issue that afflicts many organizations and even more projects. This seemingly tiny task of standardizing document naming practices can increase efficiency, reduce the likelihood of errors caused by the use of outdated documents, and deplete frustrations.

Good Names vs. Bad Names

Bad names give no indication as to what is contained within the file, making them indistinguishable from any other file.

Good names, on the other hand, should be indicative of their content, providing description and context. They should be easily scannable by eye and located immediately, searchable and unobtrusive to workflow. They should also be scalable and repeatable.

Dates may be used within a file name. However, keep in mind that the date is available within the files metadata, so consider using the name to hold a second date, like a revision date or project completion date.

Designing an Effective Format

This is not a one size fits all scenario. An effective format should be carefully designed to suit a company’s specific requirements. Much like folder organization, the naming format should mimic the user’s and our group’s workflows and thought patterns. Do you have multiple projects for one client or one megaproject that spans years? Hundreds of revisions? Is the project work segregated by project phase, month, or year?

Pay attention to how hard copies are filed as well as the thought process when retrieving documents.

Naming Components

  • Document names should consist of 2-3 components. Possible components are:
    • Project name
    • Client name
    • Project phase
    • Document type
    • Date
    • Revision number
    • Sequence number
  • Components should be ordered left to right in order of importance or primary method of retrieval. (e.g. Clientname_Project_Documenttype).
  • Consider standardizing abbreviations to minimize length, keeping in mind frictionless workflow. Only use abbreviations that will be easy for everyone to remember.
  • If using dates, standardize your format to ensure files stay in chronological order. Also, consider using only two digits for the year to minimize length.


  • Make the naming convention scalable and repeatable:
    • Add revision numbers to documents likely to be revised, consider adding an underscore before the revision number to keep them separate from the file name. E.g. Clientname_Project_Documenttype_v2
    • If using sequence numbers, use leading zeroes to assign enough digits to cover out to the foreseeable future while keeping files in sequential order (is the organization likely to see tens of revisions, hundreds, or thousands?).

E.g., Clientname_Project_Documenttype0001 (allows for up to 9999 of the same sequential file name)

  • As they often go unrecognized by most software, use underscores or dashes in place of spaces, and do not use any special characters.

Getting The Team On-Board

Implementing something even as simple as standardized naming conventions requires a strategy to ensure success.

  1. Identify and interview appropriate stakeholders
    Make sure to get representation from all divisions because  some may have different needs than others
  2. Get buy-in, feedback and test out the strategy
    Buy-in is essential to any successful rollout. Explain the benefits and that although compliance is necessary, input and feedback for continuous improvement is vital and appreciated.
  3. Document
    Once the standard naming conventions are set, document it clearly and keep “how-to’s” in each folder
  4. To improve adoption rates, and shorten the transition period, consider mass updating all current documents as per the agreed naming conventions. There are many options, here are a few:
    Advanced RenamerRename Master

    Bulk Rename Utility

  5. Information sessions
    Memos are not an effective communication tool for implementing naming standards. Formal group training or information sessions allow the prospect for feedback as well as an opportunity to gauge adoption. It also allows you to reinforce the necessity to comply, the features of the new system, and the benefits behind using the structure.
  6. Set a document archiving and clean up schedule and monitor adoption
    Keeping the system clutter-free improves scalability, making it easier to find what is needed quicklye. Kill a few birds with one stone, archive, clean up, and monitor adoption to see if retraining or reinforcement is necessary.
  7. Don’t forget new hires ! HR should be aware of the document control policies and procedures Make sure all new or temporary employees are trained as required.  We have seen some of the best organizations withhold network access for new employees until they have demonstrated a thorough understanding of the organization’s document management procedures.

Implementing standardized naming conventions may seem simple in theory, but like any new process implementation, it takes strategic thinking, collaboration, and a constant conscious effort until habits form. What doesn’t get measured doesn’t get managed is always a good axiom to keep in mind.  Effective document management is no different. Staying on top of how documents are named saves time and avoids many headaches.