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Management System Document Packages: Yea or Nay?

Management System Document Packages: Yea or Nay?

In our years of business consulting, we’ve heard many stories of the pros and cons of buying “off-the-shelf” management system document packages.  You might know the type: folders of electronic document templates that you can use to DIY your own management system.  They are commonly aimed at organisations wishing to implement ISO 9001 for quality management, ISO 14001 for environmental management, and ISO 18001 and/or AS/NZS 4801 for OHS management.

We’ve been called in in a number of situations by organisations who have bought off-the-shelf solutions, hoping for an easy and cheap solution to their requirement to implement a management system.  Some of these organisations have then called in the third-party auditors only to find that they’re nowhere near ready for certification.

So what’s our opinion on off-the-shelf solutions?  In this article, we will discuss some of the pros and cons of off-the-shelf solutions, and what we recommend if you wish to purchase one.

The Pros

Good quality documentation

This pro all depends on the individual package you buy.  Packages may include high-quality documentation that is easy to amend and provides clear linkages to applicable standard/s in order to simplify compliance.  They can be nice, modern, professional documents that will be easy to implement in your organisation.  Or, on the other hand, they may be of poor quality, difficult to amend, clunky or incompatible with your company’s IT setup, and with poor linkages to the standard/s.  It depends on the individual package.


We’ve found pricing of off-the-shelf documentation to be a leading motivator for organisations purchasing them.  Ready-made packages can be competitively priced, especially when comparing them with consultancy or allocating resources to develop the documentation from scratch yourself. 

And now we come to:

The Cons

Lack of tailoring

The major problem that we see with off-the-shelf document packages is that they are generic.  Document packages usually aren’t tailored to the businesses that buy them, and without tailoring, they usually won’t meet an organisation’s needs or address their motivations for having a management system.  For example, every organisation’s quality objectives should be specific to the individual organisation.  How would the creator of a document package know what an organisation wants to achieve via its objectives?  The best you can hope for here is a nice template that will make it easy to insert your own measurable objectives, with places to record what will be done, required resources, who will be responsible, and so on.  And in this case, the hard work – actually coming up with the specific objectives – still needs to be completed by you.

Lack of options

When you buy a document package, are you getting options?  What works for one organisation may not work for another, for a variety of reasons.  Take, for example, evaluation of external providers.  One organisation might like to utilise a sophisticated supplier prequalification system consisting of a suite of policies and procedures, required forms for providers to complete, evaluation rubrics, arrangements to ensure objectivity in selection of providers and exclusivity in supply, etcetera.  On the other end of the scale, another organisation might prefer a simple tool they can use to identify their critical suppliers and complete a straightforward annual evaluation, based on predetermined criteria.  There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and so it is the case with management systems.  Each of these solutions might be great for one business but woefully unsuitable for the other.  If a document package does not provide options for meeting requirements, you risk buying an unsuitable solution, whether that’s because it’s insufficient or over-the-top. 

Lack of the benefits of involvement in system development

When you buy an off-the-shelf document package, you miss out on the inherent benefits that you would get by developing your own documentation or being involved in this process via consultancy.  You won’t “know” the system until you spend the time and effort getting to know it.  By developing your own documentation, or having a consultant involve you in this process, you can gain a better understanding of the system components, the requirements of the applicable standards and how they are to be addressed, and how you will make the system work in your organisation.  You’ll get a head start on your implementation by understanding the system documentation intimately.  Knowledge is key when it comes to system effectiveness, and this is gained by research, experience and getting involved.  You can’t buy it off the shelf.


Our position is that off-the-shelf management system document packages can be a solution for some organisations, but the pros and cons need to be considered seriously before committing to one.  Most importantly, they are not a silver bullet for gaining compliance with standards: buying one will not create instant compliance.  If you do decide to buy an off-the-shelf solution, we recommend the following:

  • Do your research.  As with anything, cheapest isn’t necessarily best. You may end up paying in time or quality for what you save in cost. Research what you’re buying and what you’ll need to do to make it work.  Then weigh up if it’s worth it.
  • Ask for samples and a full list of what will be provided.  You might have assumptions about the quality and extent of documentation – assumptions that may not be met.  And don’t forget to consider things like format, ease of amendment, and media type. For example, are the documents compatible with your computer operating system and applications?
  • Consider costs in a realistic way.  Compare the price of buying the solution and completing the necessary tailoring versus developing the documentation yourself or engaging a consultant to help you.  And if the solution involves signing up for a subscription to access the documents, ensure these costs are factored in.
  • Be prepared to do the work to tailor the documentation.  Buying an off-the-shelf document package will not make your organisation compliant that day.  Suitability and effectiveness of management systems is only achieved via tailoring the system to suit and then implementing it in practice. 

Have you had an experience with an off-the-shelf solution?  I’d love to hear about it – let me know in the comments!