The decision has been made: The documentation must be tidied up! But how do you go about it? Sitting down with a pile of documentation in front of you and taking one document at a time will quickly take the fight out of even the most determined. It is necessary to structure the task, draw up a plan, and at the same time be prepared to make decisions that will demand time and effort form the organisation. In the following, we will zoom in on what it takes to perform a good tidying up of your documentation.

Once in a while, entertainment programmes where people get help to tidy up their clutter, appear on TV. Here, the participants are often asked to begin the decluttering by sorting their stuff into three piles: what to throw away, what to give to others, and what to keep. After the sorting, the tidying up begins in earnest, bringing order and overview to the things that need to be stored.

When we talk about tidying up a company’s documentation, the same principle can be applied. The documentation needs to be assessed and sorted into three categories, then tidied up and structured. The sorting is done through objective business criteria and the tidying and structuring is done, mainly automatically, by means of a set of defined rules.
However, the first step is to decide the scope for what, and how much, of the company’s documentation the project covers.

The Overall Process

The process for tidying up the documentation can be divided into the following phases:

1. Scope

The first phase of the project is about getting an overview of the company’s documentation and deciding what to include in the tidying up.

Once you start looking, it becomes apparent that there is documentation everywhere – from the official document management system, to shared drives and mailboxes. Where do we tidy up, and what types of documentation do we include?

The scope must be clearly defined, as the foundation for the entire project. If not, the project can easily spiral out of control with the risk of reduced quality and/or budget and schedule overruns.

2. Criteria For Sorting

When the participants in the TV-programmes place their things in the three piles, it is often based on sentimental or subjective criteria. Of course, when sorting corporate documentation, there should be rational business justification for the criteria chosen. It is important to be clear about why you are choosing to delete the documents that need to be deleted. Similarly, it should also be apparent what qualifies a given document to be kept or archived. A set of business criteria should therefore be established for each of the three “piles” or categories.

At this point, no documents are actually moved or otherwise touched. The criteria will be used to build a set of rules so that the documents can be sorted automatically at a later stage. This can be regarded as a kind of “virtual sorting” which only later leads to an actual physical sorting.

The criteria for sorting a document into one category or another obviously differ from one company to another. Nevertheless, there are many common denominators that can be used either directly or as inspiration for designing your own criteria:

Documentation That Can Be Deleted:

Redundant documentation
Identical versions of the same document, one of which can be deleted. With multiple places to store documentation, changing processes and a busy workday, it’s easy for a copy to be stored in a new place, or for redundant copies of the same document to otherwise arise.

Irrelevant documentation
Documentation where the content is no longer relevant to the business.
Occasionally, documentation is stored ‘just in case’. This may be appropriate in the short term, for an activity or project. However, if the document has no professional relevance in the longer term, it will just be ‘noise’, making it more difficult to find other, more relevant, documentation. In addition, it can slow down systems and take up unnecessary disk space.
Alternatively, documentation may also have been relevant at the time of storage, but lost it’s relevance as the business has evolved.

Obsolete documentation
The business must define criteria for the expiry of the documentation. This may be a time limit or a change in the business, for example where part of the company has been sold off. In both situations, it is important to comply with GDPR and other legislation, where documents may be subject to deletion requirements after a certain period of time.

Documentation That Can Be Archived:

Final documentation (records)
Approved documentation that no longer needs to be changed, i.e., there will be no new versions (the documentation is static), and that is no longer actively accessed by the business.

Obsolete documentation.
Just as there may be requirements for the deletion of documents, there may also be documents subject to preservation requirements. This may be a process description for equipment no longer in use or information about a product that has been discontinued. The business must define criteria for the expiry of the documentation, while at the same time complying with the applicable legislation.

Documentation That Should be Kept:

Active documentation
Documents that are still evolving and getting new versions are of course active documents.

Final documentation (records)
Approved documentation that no longer needs to be changed, i.e., there will be no more new versions (the documentation is static), but that is still actively accessed by the business.

As can be seen in the examples above, there may well be several different scenarios for documents that at first glance appear to be in the same category. It is therefore important to ensure that the criteria are thorough, well defined and, above all, cover all documents. With these in place, you can move on to the analysis phase, where the criteria are translated into actual rules in the systems.

3. Data Analysis

The analysis phase is the majority of the work is done. The criteria defined in the previous phase are translated into general rules that can automate the actual sorting of the documents. Once this is in place, more specific rules can be created for each of the three categories.


The analysis is mainly a technical exercise, where data is scanned and processed by rulesets. Once the results from from analysis are available, they must be interpreted and assessed. This requires an investment of both time and resources from the business. Input may be required to adjust the rules to their final state. Often there will also be a need to revise and adjust the defined criteria as you learn more about the documents and their data. It is therefore beneficial to include one or more iterations in the project plan.


It almost goes without saying that, in the analysis phase, particular attention is paid to the category of documents that are to be kept. The documents that are to be deleted just need to go, and those that will be archived usually do not need the same attention.

It is very much about looking at the metadata of the remaining documentation: In most organisations there will be metadata that is missing or out of date.

By updating and enriching this, documents will be more easily retrievable and used more effectively. It creates value for users that, for example, customer names and product names are updated and aligned, and that changes in the organisation are reflected in the document metadata, so that, for example, document owners are actually found in the organisation. The enrichment may also be a matter of verifying correct classification, correct use of agreed document types, etc. Finally, enrichment can also help to uncover documents that fall under regulatory legislation such as GxP, GDPR, etc.


In principle, the analysis can be performed manually in an Excel sheet. In practice, however, most companies have way too many documents for this to be practically doable. It is therefore strongly recommended to use a dedicated tool for the task. The advantage of these tools is that they can work with a scan of the documentation and metadata and handle the complicated rule sets. This way, you can see the result of the rules in the tool before executing them on the actual documentation.

The outcome of the analysis phase is a set of rules and commands to sort and enrich the documentation. If you have used a tool, you will also be able to see a report of the final result. This can be useful for verification and approval prior to execution the clean-up.

4. Execution of Documentation Sorting

The actual clean-up is often the least demanding of the phases. Nevertheless, it is often what the cleanup project is measured by, because this is where the end users see the results.

As mentioned, it can be a manual exercise, but it will rarely be practically possible. Instead, a tool is used to perform the cleanup. The tools do the hard routine work of sorting the documentation and flagging the documentation to be either deleted or archived, as well as enriching the metadata for the documentation worth keeping. Subsequently, the first two categories have to be deleted and migrated to the archive respectively. Depending on the tool chosen, this can either be done in the same operation or flagged to be done manually or by separate tool. Sorting and enriching the metadata of the documents that are to remain in the system can usually be done by the cleanup tool. However, this again depends on the tool chosen and the system being cleaned up.

No matter what tools you use and how thoroughly you design your rules in the analysis phase, it will never be able to cover 100% of the documents. There will always be a small part of the clean-up that has to be done manually. Here again, it is useful to have the support of some auxiliary tools, at least in the form of Excel sheets or similar.

Depending on the chosen scope, the manual part of the sorting may extend all the way to each employee, with instructions to tidy shared drives or mailboxes, based on a set of clear guidelines from the analysis phase.

Successful Sorting

So, succeed with the clean-up, a number of preconditions that should be in place:

1. Involve the Business

Plan to include participation of people with business insight and the right skills, in the different phases of the project:

  • The definition of the criteria for sorting
  • Review and interpretation of the analysis
  • Input to the enrichment of metadata on the kept documentation
  • Authority and decision-making power to decide on document deletion

2. Allocate Sufficient Time and Resources

A sloppy, or half-finished clean-up project can do more harm than good. In addition to the frustration of those involved at not seeing the results of their work, the worst-case scenario is that more redundant data is generated and the metadata enrichment is worthless.

3. Use a Tool

Although it may seem tempting to use Excel or similar software that you already have and know, it does not take a lot of documents before it becomes overhwelming. Add the fact that you may need to involve several people for review, input and approval, from several places in the business.
Finally, a dedicated tool will be able to connect directly to the systems and help with the actual implementation of the changes, and ultimately generate a report for verification and approval of the final result.

Learn From Your Mess

After a clean-up, everything is good and in its best order. But as time goes by, new documentation comes in and the business evolves, with new customer names, product names and employees. At the same time, there may be changes in the organisation, the systems landscape, or even parts of the business may be acquired or divested. All of which will create new documentation clutter.

If you want to keep things in order, you can help yourself in three ways:

1. Implement Processes to Maintain Order

This can be anything from advice and campaigns on good data hygiene, to written procedures on where to store your documents and how to work in the systems.
It may also be system configurations to guide users to do the right thing, or even ensure that there is only one way to do things.

2. Make A Retention Plan

The criteria for outdated documentation, which were made at the beginning of the project, should be formalised in a retention plan. Processes should be built around the documents to ensure that obsolete documents are deleted (or archived) on a regular basis. Some document management systems allow for the implementation of retention rules so that obsolete documents are automatically deleted or moved to the archive.

3. Tidy Up Regularly

In the same way that you occasionally do a deep-clean of your house or take your car in for a service, it can also be a good idea to make tidying-up your documents a reoccurring event.
It may be difficult to get funding for this, as it is rarely seen as a business critical exercise. However, if you consider the value of ease of use, the savings of working more efficiently and the ‘cost of poor quality’ e.g., from using incorrect versions, the exercise will quickly become cost positive. Also, there is also the regulatory compliance in relation to GxP, GDPR etc. to take into account.


Define a clear set of criteria for the three categories: Deleted, archived, and retained.

Focus on sorting and enriching the metadata of the documentation to be retained.

Involve the business as they have the deep business knowledge.

Develop a retention schedule so order is maintained on an ongoing basis.

Allow time for the tidying up – it takes time to do it properly.

Get help