Managing Controlled Documents with SharePoint Online

Posted on 13 May 2020

How does your business manage policies, procedures and other controlled documents? Does the process of creating and updating these documents involve multiple manual steps including people contributing to the document followed by a review and approval processes?

A simple controlled document scenario may have an editor who makes changes to a  document and once the document has been created or updated it is sent for approval with a small number of approvers. We often see these scenarios in small business or when a policy or procedure has a smaller audience.

More complex scenarios have multiple stage reviews with multiple approvers at each stage. For example, the initial draft may be reviewed by a senior manager or a team of people who provide feedback that is incorporated into a second draft. The second draft is then reviewed by the leadership team who again provide additional feedback. A third draft may be sent to a large group or even the entire organisation for feedback. This round of feedback may need to be reviewed and have additional feedback from the leadership team before creating the final draft that is signed by the CEO as the final step in the approval process.

SharePoint is widely used for managing controlled documents. The built-in functionality can be enhanced using Power Automate to create automatic, scheduled or triggered Flows (workflows) for reviews, notifications and approvals.

SharePoint features for controlled documents:

  • Document Libraries
  • Content Approval
  • Version Control
  • Content Types and Templates
  • DocumentID
  • Power Automate approval and reminder Flows
  • Document conversion (generate PDF files)
  • Electronic Signatures

We start by creating a Document Library for storing controlled documents. We can enable the content approval and versioning settings, add metadata and use views to tailor the library to meet common requirements for controlled documents. Library permissions and draft item security settings can be configured to control who can view, update and approve documents.

Workflows allow automation of process steps. Send a selected document for review or approval is a good starting point and can be done using a pre-built template. In practice we often find the approval processes having additional requirements, for example the ability to select the approver(s), approval from several different people at each stage and in complex scenarios multiple approval stages. These steps can be automated by building a custom Flow.

Another common requirement is the ability to track when individual documents are due for review. Library Views can be used to show the currently user documents where they are the assigned owner or have an action pending. This is also useful for anyone needing an overview of all documents due for review within a specified time. Power Automate can also be used to send reminder notifications to email or a Teams channel. The documents themselves can use metadata from SharePoint to ensure hardcopies are linked back to a source document.

The Document ID service generates a unique ID for every document and can be inserted into a document footer using Microsoft Word’s Quick Parts feature. You can also use Quick Parts to add the version number and data from other metadata fields. Document ID’s also generate a permalink useful for referencing documents in SharePoint from tools like ProMapp or intranet pages. This permalink doesn’t change if the document is moved or renamed.

Auditing requirements can be achieved using a combination of metadata configured on the library and version history. Microsoft Word can use SharePoint versioning to show the differences between any two versions. The version history tracks all changes and the username of editors and approvers along with date stamps.

Using SharePoint and Power Automate for managing controlled documents has clear benefits:

  • Single source of truth for controlled documents
  • Visible review and approval process
  • Automated reminders
  • Metadata to classify content
  • No email attachments
  • Co-authoring of documents
  • Supports retention and sensitivity labelling
  • Auditable process

All of this can be done with out of the box SharePoint Online functionality with no additional licensing costs. The solution can be extended to include automatic PDF file conversion, lookup data from external systems and even publish a file to an external website or file location.


Stratos will be running webinars on controlled documents in May and June.

Please join our webinar mailing list for an invite.


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