Word Doc Woes Plague Enterprise

A recent mistake in a Word document caused considerable damage and embarrassment to a publicly listed company in New Zealand.

I recently read this post about an unfortunate comment that was left in a company’s annual financial statement. It reminded me how careful we need to be when using generic tools such as Word to produce documents. Here are some tips for how to avoid this kind of embarrassment:

Read it before you send it – OK this one is really obvious but if you’ve created a document using cut and paste there’s a very good chance that it will contain something you don’t want it to. That includes notes and comments too. After you’ve read it, read it again and if it’s important give it to someone else to read and review.

Word metadata – Metadata is often neglected but it can contain the original author, path, company etc. If you’ve ever based one document on another or used a template that wasn’t created by you this can really bite – particularly if the metadata identifies another client or worse still a competitor. There are some good metadata tips here. Many companies even have Word macros to strip the metadata out of Word docs when they are opened.

Track changes – this falls into the "just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there" camp. Tracking of changes is great – it allows you to see how a document evolves over time, who made the changes, what they made and when they made them. Do you really want non-trusted people to see this too? The UK government got into trouble with this Word feature a few years ago. Before sending a document always ensure that track changes is turned off and that all changes have been accepted.

Fast saves – you may not realize this but later versions of Word have a history feature that is related to Fast Saving. With this enabled you can see different versions of your document as you were editing it. OK for you – not so great for the non-trusted recipient who ends up seeing something potentially embarrassing to both you and your company. The potential dangers of fast saving is discussed here.

And finally;
Don’t use Word unless you have to – sure use Word for writing and editing ad hoc documents but PDF is superior as a final format if you really want to make sure that the document will look exactly the way you want it to and does not contain any history of its editing. Sometimes this may be impractical, but use PDFs whenever you can. For common documents utilize document assembly tools to make your life that much easier and safer.

Other links:
Here are some guidelines from the NSA about other mistakes that can be made using Word.

This story, "Word Doc Woes Plague Enterprise" was originally published by CIO.

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