Yes Virginia, broken links ARE a real problem

I’m always surprised by the reaction we get when discussing the risks of broken links as part of planning for a Microsoft Office upgrade. When we bring up the topic with a project team’s IT leaders, it’s usually met with blank stares, shoulder shrugs and general indifference. I find this reaction surprising since broken links are often a widespread problem during and post migration, especially if the organization is upgrading from Office 2003 to Office 2010.

Most enterprises choose to upgrade in a phased roll out. While this makes sense for enterprise level upgrades, it can also exacerbate the problem of broken links. When an organization currently running Office 2003 upgrades to a newer version of Office – for example, Office 2010 –  they typically don’t upgrade all files to the new Office format due to project size, cost, and duration. Due to the individual enterprise project scope parameters, it’s likely that many – but not all – linked files are converted during the initial migration. Therefore, the end users need a way to easily fix links that break “over time,” as other users selectively convert files that were out of scope for the initial Office upgrade.

For example, let’s say there are 10 users in department A that utilize an Excel spreadsheet which is linked to a separate spreadsheet maintained by department B.  Department B rolls out Office 2010, but department A is not scheduled to be upgraded for 3 months. The resource in department B opens their spreadsheet post-upgrade, promptly hits the “convert” option and a new spreadsheet is created with the .xlsx extension. However, the original file (with the .xls extension) is still out on the company’s file share. Now, the 10 users in department A are unaware that the file they are linked to has been replaced with a new file, so they keep using the original file, not realizing that this spreadsheet is no longer in use. After all, the link is still valid, so Excel won’t notify them of a broken link, but the data in that file is no longer being updated. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to visualize the potential negative impact this may have. And it could take days or weeks (or longer) before someone realizes that they’re pulling stale data from this old Excel worksheet.

Contrast the above with planning for a server migration or consolidation and everyone is very concerned about the impact of broken links in Office files, especially in Excel. In that scenario, the broken links are very obvious, but in an Office upgrade, the broken links are usually not as apparent. During an Office upgrade, companies aren’t typically moving file locations, drives or shares, which are the “usual suspects” in file linking problems. This is why, without the proper planning and mitigation strategy, IT could be setting up end users for some big headaches – and putting their organization at business risk.