Why you probably shouldn’t use Word to create your policy documents

Flickr image "Holmes McDougall Employee Handbook" by Edinburgh City of PrintImagine you are an IT manager for an organisation that has been implementing new IT systems. You have now reached the point where you need to create and document the new IT policies and procedures. The organisation already has some general policies for IT in its staff handbook, but you need to provide more detailed information on how to use the organisation’s IT efficiently and securely.

For example, the staff handbook tells staff that customer information must be treated confidentially and only approved communication channels must used. The IT policy and procedures document will provide more detail  – that web email services (such as Yahoo Mail) must not be used to send customer information, because they often store a copy of the email even if you have deleted your sent message.

The best approach would be to have some sections in both the staff handbook and the IT policy document. In other words, the same content in different documents. Otherwise, staff would need to have two manuals open each time they wanted to check they were doing things correctly.

If you use Word, you’re likely to do this by coping the text from one Word document and pasting it into the other Word document. The problem with this approach is that when you make a change to the text, you need to remember to paste any amended sections into the other document. This make it very difficult to create customised variations of documents, such as cut down versions for managers or new staff, branch-specific versions etc. It becomes unmanageable.

One of the benefits of using some of the alternatives to Word is you can embed a piece of information into multiple documents. In a similar way to how you can use the same image in lots of different web pages, you can use the same chunk of text in lots of different documents. The advantage of this approach is that in the future you’ll only need to change the source, embedded chunk of text when it’s time to make a revision. That piece of text gets updated automatically (or semi-automatically) in all the documents that use it.


Steve Riley

I thought this was going to be a warning on the perils of metadata – I’ve seen numerous amusing examples of bits of information that probably shouldn’t have been there 🙂

Niels Grundtvig Nielsen

> In a similar way to how you can use the same image in lots of different web pages …

or in lots of Word documents, if you don’t really want to find out which images are used in which documents and don’t mind the excitement of “will the links work today?” :-}

Stuart Conner

Word is perfectly capable of handling embedded, dynamic links to ‘common’ text stored in separate files. So what’s the problem? Update the common text once, and it updates in all the docs that use it. Just like ‘using the same image in lots of different web pages’ in fact.

Adria Quinones

Our solution is to use Word with ThirtySix Software’s SmartDocs add-in, which allows you to deposit reusable chunks of information in a SharePoint repository, then search and insert from within Word. Plus, SmartDocs tracks the useage, so that you can easily reissue all affected documents should you update a chunk. And it allows for chunck variants, as well as variables and conditional text. Worth a look if you are using Word: http://www.thirtysix.net/

Martin Haeberle

The use case that you describe here is collaborative authoring and module-based publishing. Something where Word (and other text processors), frankly, suck. A good approach could be an enterprise wiki like Atlassian Confluence[1], where authors from different departments can contribute content and work on the same page (literally). And finally, that wiki content can then be published to Word documents using our add-on Scroll Office [2]. No more copying content, no more Word files being emailed around or local changes being merged back. And no more huge documents with scrambled formatting. And more time to focus on the content.

[1] Confluence – the enterprise wiki: https://www.atlassian.com/software/confluence
[2] Add-on for Word export: https://marketplace.atlassian.com/plugins/com.k15t.scroll.scroll-office

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