Organizing the Enterprise with OneNote

An important characteristic that often distinguishes successful corporate employees from those who just muddle along is the ability (or lack thereof) to organize their information and work processes. Dealing with disorganized workers is frustrating because they may come across as scatterbrained or flustered, losing track of key data just when it’s needed, or causing a lack of efficiency due to skipping or repeating important steps.

Human memory is notoriously fallible. Although a solid grasp of the subjects important to the job and a good store of knowledge are essential, very few of us can spew forth every pertinent number, statistic or step in a long process reliably. The good news is that we don’t have to have eidetic memory – the ability to perfectly recall everything we see, learn, or experience – in order to leverage the overload of information with which we’re deluged in our work every day. You only need the right organization tools and the skills to use them to best advantage.

Take note of this

Taking, compiling and organizing notes is a basic business skill that is transferable across all fields, but for the most part it’s one that isn’t included (or if it is, isn’t emphasized) in most career training programs. Almost everybody takes notes, to a greater or lesser degree, but most of us develop our own systems, whether manual or digital. If we do it electronically, we tend to use whatever software we stumble across and use it in whatever way we figure out by trial and error – often coming nowhere close to taking advantage of all its features.

This is a shame, when good note taking can have such a dramatic impact on the ease of getting our work done. It benefits not only the person who takes the notes, but his/her colleagues, as well. Well organized notes provide a historical record of a project that can be referred to by anyone in the company, and provide value even after the note taker is no longer part of the organization.

There are many peripheral benefits of good note taking. For example, taking notes can also improve your ability to remember information, and it increases your ability to focus and pay attention to detail. When you take notes, you break monolithic information into manageable chunks, making it easier to comprehend. Note taking forces you to organize your random thoughts when you put them into writing. It also helps you to prioritize what’s important and disregard what’s not. But most importantly, good note taking can save you time – and we all know that when it comes to business, time is money. According to a study conducted by Brother International Corporation, searching for lost or misplaced materials – including information – costs corporations as much as 38 hours, or nearly one work week per employee every year. If your company employs just 1000 workers, that’s a loss of 1000 weeks’ worth of productivity.

It’s not just the company that loses money, either. That same survey indicated that 30 percent of those responding said they had failed to get reimbursed for job-related expenses because they couldn’t find the documentation or receipts.

The evolution of information organization

If you’ve ever attempted to organize a physical space, such as a messy closet, you know that having the right tools for the job makes a big difference. The same is true when it comes to our virtual world.

Offices were once full of row upon row of file cabinets holding tons of paper containing the shared information that was the lifeblood of the company: letters, memos, budgets, financial statements, invoices, purchase orders, diagrams, reports and much more. In addition, individuals’ desk drawers contained personal files and those related to their specific jobs and projects – including their notes.

In that paper-based environment, the necessary tools for keeping information organized included folders (often color coded), labels, dividers, binders, sticky notes and so forth. In today’s computer-centric world, the right equipment means software that makes it quick and easy to capture the information we want to save, from a myriad of sources, and that also makes it easy to find the specific information we need when we need it.

Today we generally keep our companies’ formal documents – the shared information mentioned above – as documents on file servers or in different types of databases, depending on whether the data is structured or unstructured. That still leaves those personal files – jotted notes that record our ideas or thoughts about a project, diagrams and lists to help us work out the steps of a process, expense receipts that haven’t been tallied and turned in yet, our summaries of things we’ve read or of meetings we’ve attended, our “to do” lists, those little tips on how to do part of our job more efficiently – and so much more. This is the information that the messier among us would have scribbled on napkins and the backs of envelopes stuffed into file folders or spread across dozens of sticky notes pasted to our monitors or stuck to bulletin boards above our desks. The neat freaks will have spent countless hours transferring it to neatly printed pages that can be hole punched and put into a three-ring binder with a nice table of contents and tabbed dividers. There are several problems with that latter solution, though. It takes an inordinate amount of time, as much of the info has to be transferred from its original form to the printed pages. It’s difficult to include photos, large oversized diagrams, or audio or video information. The basic form, however, is great for organizing notes – if only it were a little more flexible. And that flexibility is exactly what Microsoft OneNote gives you.

What you can do with OneNote

OneNote is, in its simplest incarnation, an electronic emulation of the kind of notebook we all used to keep our papers together in high school. It’s laid out in a hierarchical arrangement: You create notebooks, inside of which you have sections (accessed by clicking the tabs across the top) and in each section you create pages (accessed by clicking the page list in the right pane).  So far, that’s merely a computerized version of your three-ring binder (without the rings). But OneNote takes it to a whole new level. Here are just a few of the great features in OneNote 2013 and 2016 that you can use to organize your working life:

  • Capture information in many different ways. You can easily copy and paste text and pictures into OneNote pages, or you can drag and drop various file types such as PDF, Word docs, XML, graphics files, video files, audio files, email, etc. When you drag an email message from Outlook to OneNote, for example, a dialog box will ask whether you want to attach the file (in which case there will be a link to the file inserted in your OneNote page that you can click to access the file) or insert a printout, which will give you the full text of the email message. When you copy and paste from a web page, OneNote inserts the URL to the page as part of the note so that you have a link back to the source without having to put it in yourself. OneNote also includes page templates for common types of note taking, such as meetings minutes, lecture notes, or prioritized to-do lists.
  • Use OCR to extract text from a picture. If you insert a photo or scan of a text document into OneNote, and you want the text from it in a form that you can copy as text, you can just right click the image and choose “Copy Text from Picture.” OneNote’s Optical Character Recognition feature will convert it to text and copy it to the clipboard.
  • Make lists. I frequently use OneNote’s “to do tag” to create checklists, particularly in regard to preparing for a meeting or event, or planning travel. Checkboxes are added to each line in your list, and you can quickly check them off when completed.
  • Perform mathematical calculations. You don’t have to fire up Calc.exe to perform basic calculations within your OneNote pages. You can enter equations on the page, type an equal sign (=) and hit the space bar – and ta da! OneNote gives you the answer.
  • Get a handle on meetings. With OneNote on your microphone-equipment portable computer, you can record audio or video of a meeting while at the same time typing your notes or thoughts about what’s being said. You start, pause and stop the recording right there in the OneNote interface. But here’s the really cool part: those notes you’re typing are synchronized with the recording. The software inserts little icons to the left of the text and when you read through your notes, you can use them to immediately go to the place in the recording that corresponds to the time you typed the particular text. You can also search for specific words in the recorded audio.
  • Email your notes. If you want to share all these great notes with your colleagues, you can do so easily even if they don’t have OneNote installed. Just select “Email page” and they will be able to see the content in the body of the email message.
  • Play tag. You can use the default tags that come with OneNote or create your own custom tags to make searching for information even easier.
  • Go down in history. Sometimes you make changes to your notes, but then later you want to see the previous version. With OneNote, you can view a note’s version history by selecting a time frame (up to six months back) in the Recent Edits menu and seeing the changes that were made over that period. You can also look at all past versions via the Page Versions.
  • Keep your private notes private. Some of the things we preserve in notes are personal, or they deal with confidential business information. You can password protect a section of your OneNote notebook with a few simple clicks.

An entire book could be written (and several have) about all of OneNote’s organizational features and the many ways it can be used in the corporate world to make users more productive. OneNote comes with Microsoft Office and Office 365, and it also comes preinstalled on Windows 10. For other versions of Windows, you can download the OneNote desktop application at no cost, and you can also get a OneNote app for your Windows phone, iPhone or Android phone. You can also use the web version of OneNote Online, and your notes can be synchronized across versions. Given all that, there’s really no excuse not to give OneNote a try.

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