What is version control and why is it important?

You’ve done it, I’ve done it — like it or not, we’ve all made mistakes. But if we play our cards right, even the most catastrophic of wrongdoings can usually be righted. And that begs the question, what if we could never go back and make amends? In the workplace, this could have dire consequences — even the simplest of typos have the potential to alter the course of life-changing legal proceedings. 

But luckily enough, there are systems in place nowadays to ensure that we can return to where we started and try again. In the case of computing, this is a handy system commonly known as version control.

What is version control?

This is the practice of recording the changes made to a file or dataset and tracking any revisions that are made over time. This system provides document users with an audit trail of alterations, typically showing what data was changed, what time it was changed, and who was responsible.

This is especially helpful considering the recent surge in remote working. Now that cloud storage and collaboration suites have been widely adopted, companies rarely need face-to-face time to work together effectively, and can request changes, refer to old files and date revisions in a document with ease.

Organizations use a range of strategies to maintain version control and keep drafts and workflows manageable when working on a project. Many productivity suites allow users to natively track changes in a shared document, but many companies also implement policies for how long employees should keep document drafts, or where they should be stored.

What are the benefits of version control?

So that’s how the system works, but what’s the purpose of it all? These are the top benefits of effective version control.

Enhances collaboration

With the added traceability from version control, users can contribute to the same documents with an auditable record of who added, deleted or tweaked the data. This helps to facilitate a more streamlined collaboration process on documents that might need multiple pairs of eyes, such as policy or contract writing, seeing as users don’t need to use their own individual files and can all work on the same one simultaneously. 

Alternatively, when users are working from the same document but don’t need to share their inputs, companies may use cloud-based applications to minimize version confusion.

EASA, for example, offers software to convert spreadsheets into multi-user web apps. These ensure that “every user is always using only the latest and most up to date version of the underlying spreadsheet”, which “only you, as the administrator, can update any time by simply uploading a new version of the spreadsheet”. This way, users can autonomously work from the same spreadsheet without creating different versions as they go, so as not to overwrite or interfere with each others’ work.

Helps with compliance

Tracking version history can also help organizations to keep up to date with compliance standards in business, and avoid penalties imposed by regulatory bodies. In recent years, compliance mandates such as GDPR, HIPAA and SOX have clamped down on businesses dealing with sensitive data to ensure confidentiality and privacy standards are not breached.

As a result, companies have needed to update and modernize their policies for data protection. Preserving document audit trails for contracts, policies, datasets and other records can help to mitigate risk and uphold privacy standards. With robust version control, organizations can monitor who in the company is accessing and modifying important documents, encourage accountability in employee actions and maintain security.

Failing to do so, however, could result in data leaks and potential restitution costs. For example, Firewall Times reports that in 2011, marketing company Epsilon suffered a breach estimated to have cost as much as $4 billion due to the volume of confidential client information that was stolen.

Reduces errors

An organization with a poor version control strategy is an organization prone to error. Working out of multiple versions of the same file can cause confusion surrounding what the most up to date or correct version is, especially when collaborating with large teams that are remotely distributed. This can result in a range of mistakes, such as the wrong content being published, misinformation being spread, or data loss when a newer version of a file is mistakenly overwritten.

Version control minimizes these risks. With a fully traceable record of all changes made to a file, users can go back and spot errors, wrongful deletions and changes that should never have been made, and even restore versions of files that were seemingly overwritten a long time ago.

In summary, version control is an essential component of any organization’s IT strategy, and should not be ignored. Its benefits go far beyond merely saving time on finding important data, offering instead the potential to streamline collaboration and make records secure — all the while reducing the chance of errors that could spiral an organization into chaos.

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