The State of Microsoft Word in the Enterprise

By Deane Barker on September 10, 2005

One thing that continues to amaze me is how poorly people use Microsoft Word, considering its dominance in business word processing. The “barrier to entry” for a Word user is extremely low — just open it and start typing — so very few people bother to learn how to really use it well.

I spent three hours yesterday cleaning up some poorly formatted Word documents for a client. They were an utter wreck and just changing the font and logo for the company took 30 minutes per document. Thankfully I got them put back together in a state that ensures they’ll be easier to change in the future.

The whole thing got me wondering what the ROI would be for a large organization to send everyone to classes on Word and to develop some kind of over-arching “word processing strategy.” For the amount of information that’s contained in Word documents in the average organization, they really don’t get much attention.

Some things I know:

  • If you ever hit Enter twice to get a blank line between paragraphs, you’re making things more difficult.

  • If you ever use spaces to indent text, you’re making things more difficult.

  • If you ever number manually, you’re making things more difficult.

  • If you ever find yourself manually applying the same formatting to text in more than one place, you’re making things more difficult.

Read this document for a top-level list of Word no-nos that just about everyone does unless they’ve been explicitly trained otherwise. Now, in order to not to be Fabian-esque, let me say that the consequences for making these mistakes are not fatal, and a lot of organizations do the same thing as you, so don’t feel bad. Think back — when was the last time you had a training class on Word?

(Let me tell you, though, that these things are not wasted. When I worked for Citigroup, they sent me to two four-hour classes on Microsoft Excel. When they told me I had to go, I thought it was silly, but I’ve used the information I learned in those classes over and over again since then. Not a week goes by that don’t do something with Excel that I wouldn’t have known about if not for those two classes, six years ago.)

Humor me for a minute: think about how much you know about Word, then ask yourself some questions —

  • Did you know that Word can operate much like CSS, with thousands of documents looking to a source document for their formatting information? Did you know that you can change that one document and every “child” document will update its formatting to match the next time they are opened?

    This means that if you change the company name and logo someday, you can fundamentally alter the “standard document” format in one file and 10,000 Word documents scattered all over the network will automatically change with it.

  • Did you know that Word documents can almost be manual formatting-free, meaning all their formatting is taken from styles (which they can source from a single template), leaving the actual, embedded content of the document extremely neutral?

  • Did you know that if you carefully plan the Word styles in your organization, you can get extremely good results when converting Word to HTML?

  • Did you know that you can embed programming elements (macros, VBA modules, etc.) in a source document and those programming elements will propogate to every document derived from it?

    If people in your organization need to check their documents into a content repository, or tell the search indexer to re-index every time they’re saved, then you can write this functionality once and have it inherent to every document generated from a template.

  • Did you know that if you have a document that you generate a lot — just changing a name or two every time — you can create the document with new information just by changing some fields in the Document Properties dialog?

  • Did you know that if you’re consistent in structuring and styling your Word documents, it’s not that hard to get data out of them programatically? We tend to look at Word documents as big, amorphous blobs, but Word has a great COM interface, and a well-structured Word document is fairly easy to read from code.

I’m not saying that I’m the be-all and end-all of Microsoft Word, (this man is), but I’ve done a fair amount of research on it — certainly enough to believe that larger organizations really need to develop a word processing strategy. They need to think about how they’re using Word, how much data is contained in Word documents on their network, and how they could be managing the data better.

There are countless hours of wasted re-work that goes into maintaining Word documents that could really be avoided. I’m thinking there’s a decent market for a “Word consultant” — someone who comes into an organization and does nothing but evaluate and fix how they’re using Word. I’m betting the ROI would be huge.

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Comments

  1. In the days of yore, every piece of CBS stationery had a small red dot showing where the text of the letter should start. CBS President Dr. Frank Stanton was noted for his attention to detail and would discipline typists if he could see the red dot. If he had read your column then, Dr. Frank could have resolved this issue at his own computer.

  2. I think the same goes for most any application that deals with text; people tend to ignore the manual and use the thing as an expensive typewriter. In my line of work I deal with all kinds of file types, including Word, that are built just horrendously. People don’t realize how easy it is to set up style sheets and custom tab spacing, so they end up using the space bar and multiple tabs.

    The kicker is that I catch the “graphic artists” doing similar dumb things in apps like Quark; they need information in a table, and instead of using Quark’s excellent table building tools and embedding the table in a text box, they’ll leave everything in a text box with umpteen independent lines on top of it to form the grid. Then when the text upstream changes the flow just one line they have to go in & manually move the grid elements. Gah. I think the next time I catch someone doing that I’ll make them work on a PC for a day.

  3. Well, I use Word reluctantly. I hate it. I would much, much rather use LaTeX or some other typesetting system. Learning all that Word crap is much harder work and the end result is binary documents making all my tools unavailable.

    Honestly I don’t give a fuck, I’m forced to use Word so I’ll use it just as crappily as every clueless corporate type that forces it down my throat. I don’t give a fuck. Yes, I’m angry that I have to use it.

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