How can I improve standard documents?

SME strategy special: Expert advice on desktop office productivity applications

SME strategy special: Expert advice on desktop office productivity applications

Can you give me any tips on how to get the most out of my desktop office productivity applications? How can I ensure that all the documents my company sends out are standardised? How will everybody access these documents? Are there any security issues I should know about?

The challenge is to get staff to use standardised forms

Mick Hegarty, IT general manager, BT Business

The most challenging issues here are not to do with technology but with the internal culture and discipline of the business. Setting up standardised letters and forms is one thing - ensuring people use them is quite another.

Get the basics right. Make sure the designs you select all have the same look and feel and meet the requirements of the job. The more useful a document is, the more likely it is to be used.

Be sensible with fonts and colours and do not go for large multicoloured designs if most employees use a black-and-white printer. Consult people: the more buy-in you get, the more people will use the standard documents.

Store the documents as templates on a central server so that they are accessible over the local network. Make sure the templates are readily available in the programs people use, such as Word, Powerpoint and Excel.

Make sure everyone has enough training to use the applications and set up the documents. Perhaps surprisingly, it may be an alien notion to some people. Before getting into technicalities, explain why standardisation is a good thing.

Finally, do not start out with a burst of enthusiasm and then let the process wither. Documents that are not up-to-date and which do not meet the needs of the business will not get used. Make it someone's job to update the templates as names, titles, telephone numbers and locations change.

Create a standard design, then save as a template

John Coulthard, head of small business, Microsoft UK

To get a consistent look and feel to all your documents you need a logo and design that suits each type of communication or presentation and that gives a consistent look and feel.

Involve a designer - you do not want to get stuck with a dodgy logo when your company becomes successful. You can then save each of these documents as a template.

Controlling information is important, particularly on desktops and laptops. Create the templates once and use replication to stay in control, automatically making sure that each user has a view of important information such as spreadsheets.

A simple way of setting a business up with these services is to use Small Business Server 2003. It has all the basic features, such as intranet, e-mail, secure external access and back-up, that a business needs to control its intellectual property.

Finally, there are some desktop applications that have security implications. Make sure you have the appropriate macro security set-up so that you are not automatically downloading images attached to e-mail and that you have the latest updates. Office 2003 has many additional safely features already built in.

Ensure templates and sent documents can't be altered

Trevor Lucas, managing director, SME reseller, TAL Computer Services

Office applications such as Word and Excel allow you to design and save templates that standardise the look of your invoices, letters or any other company correspondence. You can also add disclaimers to your messages or marketing collateral to cover yourself legally or increase sales.

In keeping these documents secure, it is worth introducing both external and internal controls. If you want to make sure that information sent externally cannot be altered, it is worth converting documents into PDF format so that clients cannot alter the information.

Your document templates should also be set up so that users cannot alter the data. This is done by right clicking the file in Windows Explorer, choosing the properties option and then ticking the "read only" box.

It is important to make sure that documents are easy to find and available from a central area. They need to be stored in a logical, structured way which is in line with the demands of your business.

If you need particularly close control over the documents, a workflow system may be useful. This can be done in Word or Excel and will provide a way to manage and track a document at each stage and with each user. Tracking can be simply developed by Microsoft partners.

Put templates in a common area on the network

Peter Scargill, National IT chairman, Federation of Small Businesses

One simple answer is to provide templates in a common file area on the network for all applications. Most word processing packages offer a range of templates that can easily be customised for your company and made available to all staff.

As for security issues, macro viruses can cause havoc. These are computer viruses that use the application's own macro programming language to distribute themselves and have great potential for inflicting damage. There are various virus scanners which, in addition to scanning incoming e-mails, will also scan incoming documents such as Word files.

When purchasing virus-scanning software, enquire as to its effectiveness against incoming attachments such as .doc files and whether or not the package will scan constantly in the background. As always, ensure you have the latest anti-virus software as well as any important security updates to your operating systems.

Structure your file store properly and use passwords

Mike Lucas, regional technology manager, Compuware

Make sure you have a file store that is structured by function. This could be something as simple as a central disc drive or a portal/intranet solution.

Whatever system you use, security will be an issue. My recommendation is to always use a minimum-rights, password-protected security model. By this I mean that you give everyone the right to access non-sensitive information but then use passwords to authorise who can open more sensitive or critical files. There are more complex options but it is always sensible to go for the simple and effective approach.

You can ensure all documentation you send out is standardised by creating templates and ensuring people know where they reside and how to use them. Training is key if you want to get the most out of your desktop productivity solutions.

Instead of using technical, functionality-based training, you should bring in business-focused trainers who can show staff how to apply applications such as Word and Excel to typical business processes.

Little effort is needed for a strong, professional image

Stephen Benson, Business Link Hertfordshire's UK Online IT centre

Even for the smaller company the power of desktop applications and the inherent ease of customisation will offer the opportunity to develop a strong and professional corporate image with very little effort.

By setting up templates for all documents, including letters, reports and spreadsheets, consistency and maintenance of a corporate style or image is easy to attain and straightforward to manage.

This can be achieved through the network by giving users access to a depository of documents and forms, pre-set as templates, and saved back to a centralised database of documents. Different functions, departments or users may need to have their documents or spreadsheets stored in discreet directories where confidentiality is required, but the format for all company correspondence may be standardised.

This method of centralising and standardising will improve consistency of presentation, create a knowledge base and allow users to copy existing paragraphs, forms and templates rather than creating new work each time.

If your company has a website, you may also consider an intranet or extranet. This is a part of the site that allows password-protected access to users, not just those on-site, but also for employees working away from the office. This supports consistency, even when working from abroad.

The usual concerns about security will arise, but with a sound policy and strict password protection, access control and a little common sense should ensure risks are minimised.

Following October's SME Month, run in association with BT, we have assembled a panel of experts to answer questions sent in by small businesses. The SME strategy special will run throughout November

Read more on IT for small and medium-sized enterprises (SME)