Do you take notes? You should.
By Graham Chastney, Principal Solution Architect
In his book “The Virgin Way” Richard Branson talks about the importance of listening for leaders, how an interview with John le Carre taught him the need to take notes and how note-taking became a lifetime habit:
“That was when I took up what was to become a lifetime habit: I began capturing my thought, observations and just about anything of interest that someone said or did in my hard-back lined notebooks”
He then goes on to talk about how these notebooks had become invaluable in a number of lawsuits and concludes:
“Listening is a wonderful skill, but given that the average human brain tends to store a very small percentage of what, at the time, may seem like insignificant statements and ideas, those books fill in a lot of what otherwise would be blank spaces in my memory bank. Acquiring the habit of note-taking is therefore a wonderfully complementary skill to that of listening.” Please write this down now so you don’t forget it!”
Richard Branson uses “hard-back lined notebooks” and for many people this is their preferred method, it’s still mine in most situations. The market for paper notebooks is alive and thriving, Moleskine’s paper products, a favorite of many, grew its revenue by 11% between 2013 (other notebooks are of course available), but this is a technology blog so we should probably look at what’s happening in the non-paper note-taking market.
There have been applications for note-taking for as long as we’ve had PC’s, but none of them have yet made the paper notebook redundant and there are a number of reasons for that.
No device has yet allowed the freedom of expression that paper does, the devices just aren’t quite there. We’ve tried all sorts of ways of trying to make the digitization of notes as easy as possible:
- Digital pens – like the ones from Livescribe
- Pen tablets – like the ones from Wacom
- Pen enabled Tablet computers – like the Microsoft Surface or the Apple iPad Pro
Most of these technologies have been around in one shape or form for a very long time – the Compaq Concerto had a Wacom stylus input integrated into it in 1992 – but none of them have yet made the notebook redundant.
Each iteration of the technology is taking us closer to that point, but there are still significant hurdles to overcome, including our friend the battery. There’s also something very tactile about a paper notebook that other technology devices still don’t have.
Note-taking applications have been around for a very long time with the current market dominated by a number of them.
These applications aren’t just paper notebook replacement tools though, they are each seeking to be the personal (and team) repository for your information. A place where you write notes, but also a place where you store information from the internet, scanned images, audio files, meeting minutes, etc. Imagine a notebook stuffed full of supporting material and you’ve got the idea of what’s going on here, actually imaging a whole library full of various different notebooks each stuffed full of supporting material.
Evernote is arguably the leading note-taking application with over 150 million users which is good going for an application that isn’t part of a broader productivity tool-set such as OneNote with Office.
Evernote stores all of its data in an Evernote cloud with applications for all of the major platforms: Android, iOS, Windows, OS-X, browser and even Windows Phone. Evernote has primarily been a tool that people have chosen and organizations have begrudgingly adopted. There are team capabilities and business subscription plans but I suspect that most people still use Evernote as an individual.
There is no storage limit on Evernote, but depending on the plan that you subscribe to there is a limit to the amount of data that you can upload each month.
Microsoft OneNote has been around since 2003, and for most of that time a free part of Microsoft Office. Though widely overlooked as a component of Office it has more recently been featuring more prominently in the overall Microsoft productivity story. One aspect of this has been the rapid evolution of the mobile client apps for Android and iOS as well as Windows, OS-X and Windows Phone. Another aspect has been the creation of OneNote online within the Office 365 portfolio of capability where a OneNote notebook is now a standard element in all Office 365 Sites (SharePoint). As well as supporting synchronization with Office 365, and also with OneNote online, OneNote also supports the use of local files.
In organizations that have adopted OneNote people generally have access to multiple notebooks reflecting personal and team use. OneNote provides search capabilities across these various notebooks to ease the challenges of information being recorded in different places.
Google Keep is available for Android iOS and browser. Like Evernote it also uses a cloud storage model which currently stands outside of the Google Drive allocation for a Google account and doesn’t appear to have any upper limit on it. Unlike Evernote or OneNote Google Keep doesn’t provide an application for Windows or OS-X potentially limiting its usefulness for some people, but it does provide a Chrome app to mitigate some of these limitations.
The latest entrant into the note-taking market is DropBox with Paper which is currently in beta. It seems like a logical extension of capability for an organization that provides file services to also provide a capability that enables people to create and organize notes. Whether it is a strong enough offer remains to be seen.
From Personal to Team to Organisation
There was a time when note-taking was a completely personal thing, you took notes for yourself. Sometimes you’d take notes for a meeting which you would distribute to a group of people via email. Now the note-taking applications enable the sharing of notes, note-taking has become a collaborative activity. Most of them also support simultaneous co-authoring of notes. I suspect that DropBox is more interested in enabling team collaboration than enabling personal knowledge management.
Whilst note-taking is a core element of a personal knowledge management (PKM) regime, it’s also a significant part of team and organizational knowledge management (OKM) regimes. Many of today’s organization knowledge management regimes focus on the management of files which are going to have to change as information is stored in more diverse data stores both inside and outside an organization (perhaps a subject for another day).
What I use
My primary personal knowledge management repository is Evernote. I clip and collect information into Evernote and organize it into various notebooks. These clippings are collected on my iPhone, my laptop and also automatically via IFTTT.
My organizational notetaking is done in OneNote and stored in Office 365 where others collaborate on it. I access a number of different notebooks depending on the team that I am working with so the ability to search across notebooks is invaluable. Most of these notes tend to be text or diagrams with limited pen input so the laptop is still the primary input device.
My most personal note taking is done into Moleskine notebooks where I find the freedom of paper still unmatched when it comes to thinking. I also tend to take a paper notebook into workshop meetings to stop me getting distracted by the technology.
Do you take notes? What do you use?
Graham Chastney is a Technologist in CSC’s Global Infrastructure Services. He has worked in the arena of workplace technology for over 25 years, starting as a sysprog supporting IBM DISOSS and DEC All-in-1. Latterly Graham has been working with CSC’s customers to help them understand how they exploit the changing world of workplace technology. Graham lives with his family in the United Kingdom.