Office Hours: How OneNote made friends in a corner office

Michael C. Oldenburg June 22, 2007

Michael C. Oldenburg

Have you heard of OneNote? Think it's meant just for note-taking or that it requires a special kind of computer? Not sure how to use it in the business world? For this week's Office Hours column, Michael Oldenburg spent some time looking over the shoulder of Microsoft Business Division president Jeff Raikes, who finds OneNote an indispensible tool for information workers.

Applies to

Microsoft Office OneNote 2007

As part of my work on Office Online content, I recently had the pleasure of meeting Jeff Raikes, the president of the Microsoft Business Division. When you work in the trenches like we writers and editors do, you don't often get a first-hand glimpse of the work habits of senior executives. I was surprised to discover to what extent, as Jeff himself put it, he's an information worker just like the rest of us.

The plan for our meeting was that Jeff would demonstrate how he uses OneNote 2007 together with other Microsoft Office programs. I already knew that Jeff was a OneNote enthusiast ("It has probably become my most-used application," he told attendees at a recent executive briefing session), but actually seeing how he uses OneNote to personally manage a daily barrage of important, time-sensitive, and confidential information dispelled any assumptions that I might have had when I entered the room.

On his desk, Jeff had three large, widescreen LCD monitors, side by side, all rotated in portrait mode. Since he spends a great deal of his time looking at information in various page-like formats, this setup makes the most sense for him. In front of him was his Tablet PC — a laptop computer with handwriting capabilities. Jeff is a big fan of tablet computing, which is catching on in schools and universities across the country. Although OneNote does include several cool tablet-specific features, you don't need a Tablet PC to use and enjoy OneNote. It works equally great on desktop PCs and laptop computers.

After noting his office and computer set-up, we talked about how OneNote helps Jeff accomplish three of his main business priorities:

  • Managing a personal information repository

  • Taking his whole office on the road

  • Using information seamlessly across multiple Office applications

Jeff told us first-hand why each of these priorities matter to him, and why OneNote — still one of the best-kept secrets in the Office user community — has become his program of choice. Read on to see what Jeff had to say about each of these areas and how OneNote made it happen.

OneNote as your personal information repository

OneNote has already received accolades for providing a unique workspace and computing platform that provides the kind of flexibility that other, similar programs have tried — and failed — to achieve. Still, a lot of people aren't quite sure what OneNote does or how it's intended to be used. One assumption that people commonly make is that you have to learn a whole new organizational system to benefit from using OneNote (you don't) or that you'll be stuck with only one way of performing familiar tasks (you aren't). Even when all of the benefits of electronic note-taking become clear, nothing makes people realize OneNote's full potential better than a compelling demonstration.

“I’m on a mission to eliminate all of my Outlook folders and store everything in OneNote.”

To start things off, Jeff showed us his Outlook inbox, which contained somewhere between 80 and 100 subfolders, in which Jeff had been archiving messages, documents, and file attachments for reference, follow-up, and tracking. When you consider that a great deal of the information that he receives every day is already filtered by his assistant and by his business manager, that's a pretty staggering amount of information to manage. "I kind of grew up on the Sally system," Jeff remembered, referring to a popular personal organization method pioneered by trainer Sally McGhee. Several years ago, he adopted her way of coding folder names that are associated with specific tasks and action items. Although this has worked well for him over the years, Jeff knew that, no matter what kind of system you use, manually tucking away messages and documents in electronic folders on a computer is really no more efficient than stashing papers in file cabinets. Too often, the information still proves hard to find when you need it most.

"I'm on a mission to eliminate all of my Outlook folders in favor of storing everything in OneNote," Jeff told us. "That's because OneNote is simply a more effective information repository." Taking a glance at some of his notebook sections, it was easy to see why. Instead of filing single e-mail messages and their file attachments away one by one, OneNote lets him keep such information in full context with other files and together with his personal notes and annotations. For files that can't be singularly classified, he can link between the pages and sections in his OneNote notebook to easily remind himself of their relevance to each other. The result is fewer folders and less dependence on their names and locations.

Jeff laughed when he said, "I like to tease the OneNote team that OneNote is now no longer correctly named. It's not just for note-taking anymore," he explained. He has a point. Because of the way OneNote works, you can make it more than just an electronic version of your paper notebook or scrapbook. You can make it your personal filing cabinet that never runs out of room — one that instantly remembers and finds anything you've ever put into it, and can follow you everywhere you go.

Whoever said "You can't take it with you" didn't use OneNote

While pausing to look at his desk at one point in the meeting, Jeff reflected on another reason why he was so delighted that OneNote came along. "My goal is to not have paper around anymore." I nodded my head, wondering to myself like so many times before why it's been so difficult to achieve this idea in the business world. If you've ever forgotten to bring a printout to a meeting, you know how cumbersome it can be to try and keep everything together. Hurriedly cramming piles of paper into a briefcase for a presentation or whenever you just want to take some work home can be a similarly error-prone task.

For most of us, just bouncing from meeting to meeting during the day makes it difficult enough to keep your thoughts and ideas in order. The complexity of an executive's work can exacerbate the problem. When you spend a great deal of your time meeting clients across the nation or on the other side of the globe, you can't afford to miss a beat.

“Weren’t computers supposed to help save us time?”

Perhaps more than realizing the age-old dream of the paperless office, we also want access to our information from wherever we are. Mention the word "mobile" to anyone in the industry and busy people thumbing through their cell phone menus come to mind. But what many of us have been waiting for is a program that's smart enough to let us work the same way when we're out of the office as when we're sitting at our desktop PCs. Making copies of computer files just to take them on the road with us is really no less cumbersome than dealing with static paper printouts. When we don't have access to our master files, any ideas and notes that we jot down on the road become islands, and we end up spending too much time back in the office merging changes and tracking multiple versions of files. And hey, weren't computers supposed to help save us time?

Back in OneNote, Jeff set up a roaming (or "shared") notebook, so he can access all of his notes and information everywhere he goes. By placing the notebook files on a network, such as a file share or a SharePoint site, and giving his personal assistant and his business manager permission to access specific notebooks and sections, he can continuously collaborate with his team. Each of them has permission to add information to the shared pages, so that every time Jeff brings up OneNote, he's sure to be looking at the latest information. Whether it's data from multiple authors or from different locations at different times, OneNote handles all of the synchronization automatically. Even if Jeff has to disconnect temporarily while working on his notes and files (for example, while on an airplane), OneNote keeps track of everything in offline mode while he continues to work on his notes. When he later reconnects, back in his office or somewhere in a hotel room, the additions and changes to his OneNote files are automatically synchronized and everyone on his team can see the latest version of his notes.

Jeff recognizes that shared notebooks aren't just for business use. He has a separate shared notebook set up for his family, which they can access over the Internet. He keeps his wife informed about travel plans without having to stick a paper note on the refrigerator, and his kids can post pictures they've taken and stories they've found on the Web and show them to their Dad. When Jeff has a fleeting free moment during the day, he can catch up on those items and leave his family members a handwritten reply.

Seamless information management

When the focus of our meeting reached OneNote's integration features, Jeff had high praise. "OneNote 2007 was a huge breakthrough because of its Office integration. The integration is phenomenal."

Building further on the information repository theme, Jeff was most delighted at the ability to bring in virtually any file into OneNote and mark it up without losing its original formatting. "When I go to a meeting now, I want the PowerPoint slide deck sent to me in advance of the meeting" he explained. When the deck comes through in Outlook, he sends the whole presentation to OneNote, where he does the note-taking right on top of the slides themselves. If he needs more space on a page, he can create it with a single click, and he can do it without messing up the formatting of the presentation. When he does need to work with specific text, he can extract it from the slide images and paste it into his notes.

Jeff went on to show us how he uses color-coding to differentiate his notes and comments before and after a meeting. He formats notes taken in advance of the meeting in red, which reminds him to ask questions about specific items and ask for clarifications when the actual presentation reaches a specific slide. During the meeting itself, he adds additional notes and formats them in blue to differentiate them from his previous thoughts. When he reads through his meeting notes again later on, he has a clear and complete record of his thought process, and everything is saved in context with the presentation slides.

Whenever Jeff is the presenter in a meeting, he uses the same techniques to take speaker notes. If an audience member asks a question, Jeff notes it over the appropriate slide in OneNote and, if necessary, assigns an Outlook task to it. He likes that he doesn't have to switch to Outlook to create new tasks, contacts, and meeting notes — he can do it all right from within OneNote. "The beauty of all this," said Jeff, "is that these things just go onto my task list," pointing to his To Do bar in Outlook, where OneNote had instantly placed all of the new tasks he created in his notes.

“OneNote’s integration with Office 2007 is phenomenal!”

Aside from the obvious conveniences of using OneNote with other Office programs, Jeff was delighted with the automatic linking that OneNote maintains between related items, such as Outlook meeting notices that other people have sent him and the pages of meeting notes that he keeps in OneNote. A link from the meeting notice to the notes (and vice versa) is created by OneNote automatically. Even if he reorganizes or consolidates the pages and sections in his OneNote notebooks over time, the links are maintained. Similar relationships persist between information in Jeff's Contacts database in Outlook and his associated notes pages about specific clients.

It wasn't until the conclusion of our meeting that I realized that Jeff had never once had to use a Search command to look for something that he wanted to show us. Everything was already accessible from all of the right places, even outside of OneNote. It was easy to see how this level of integration went hand-in-hand with Jeff's preference for keeping everything with him on the go. He described a scenario where he was in a meeting with one manager and needed to refer to a discussion that he had previously had with another member of his team. Instead of manually searching his notes, Jeff quickly opened the Outlook appointment for the other meeting, clicked the Meeting Notes button, and OneNote immediately retrieved the information he needed.

Jeff has another way of finding his most important notes instantly. He uses note tags in OneNote to mark text and handwriting that he knows he'll need to follow up on. When something isn't important enough to be made into an Outlook task right away, he marks it with an "Important" tag. Then, when he's ready to process his follow-up items at the end of the day, OneNote creates a Tags Summary report for him, which serves as a handy To Do list of items that he might want to discuss with his business manager. Together, they can then decide what needs to be done — and when.

Jeff estimates that going through his action items with OneNote takes him less than half the time that it used to take him with Outlook alone. Going through dozens and dozens of tasks in Outlook was time-consuming because the items had little or no context on the tasks list. At the end of a busy week, it was impossible to remember every piece of related information. OneNote lets Jeff jump to the exact places in his notes where tasks and tags had originated. He can instantly remind himself of their context, make a decision, and move on to the next task on the list.

Learning from each other's best practices

The hour was up sooner than I wanted it to be. Still, no classroom or training course could have given me this kind of insight into the real-world priorities, scenarios, and daily work tasks of a busy Microsoft executive. It was also cool to watch someone like Jeff use our own products in the real world and hear him remark honestly along the way about what he liked or disliked about them.

About the author

Michael C. Oldenburg is a Technical Writer in the Office User Assistance group at Microsoft. Over the past decade, he has worked on numerous documentation and training projects for a variety of Office programs, including FrontPage, PhotoDraw, InfoPath, and OneNote. When he's not busy setting up computers for friends and family members, he's most likely designing Web sites and graphics, reading a good book, continuing his Japanese studies, or playing the latest video games. Michael's blog, Nota Bene, is published on MSDN.

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