Tuesday, October 18, 2005

OneNote shared sessions

So it was two weeks ago that I first forced my coworker "AB" to work with me in a OneNote shared session. Despite being a technical consultant like myself, he referred to me as a "dork" and claimed he did not understand what we would gain out of taking notes at the same time in the same OneNote "sheet", despite the fact that we both take turns taking notes and then consolidating them into the same section hosted in SharePoint. Not to mention that we have to then edit the notes and present them to our client as minutes.

Anyway, as soon as I started, I quickly realized that using the pen (since I have a Tablet PC and he just has a regular laptop) was not effective in shared sessions. This is because a shared session only allows the pen to be used in picture rather than handwriting mode. This kind of renders it useless since, if you want to later convert the handwriting, you can only write one line at a time, then hope the automatic "framing" of the line captures the entire line (sometimes it will see extra spaces and then only highlight a portion of your line), and then convert it to handwriting, and then drag it into place. AB found this confusing since it would reflow the text he was typing as I dragged it into place, and so basically it became unwieldy to use the pen. Also, if you get caught up in writing and write multiple lines, the "convert to handwriting" function stacks all lines on top of each other as one extra-tall line, which converts to gibberish. So I end up using my tablet in regular laptop mode.

Think about that. While I recognize that a lot of OneNote was designed to be just as easy to use with a keyboard as a pen, including lots of useful keyboard shortcuts, so that it would not just be a tablet-only product, it to some extent was meant to be "Journal on steroids" and drive use of tablets and pen computing. But the shared session, which is a fairly radical step forward in collaboration technology, is basically unusable for note-taking in ink if you want to produce minutes from it without retyping everything. So you are practically better off leaving the pen in its holder and typing everything. That's fine since I type far faster than I write (particularly when I have to do a bunch of bullshit to convert my "picture" writing into usable handwriting) but I find I am lately only using my tablet in slate mode as a movie-watching machine on the plane. Plus I have found that when I type I basically attack the keyboard loudly and freakishly when I am trying to maintain my 100 WPM typing speed, so besides putting up the "screen barrier" in front of the people I am meeting with, I am also whaling on the keyboard like some sort of freak. I would hope that OneNote 12 will allow handwriting in shared sessions so I can leave the tablet in slate mode and write usable text that I can easily convert afterwards.

Having said all that, I do believe that the shared session has been tremendously effective in what AB and I do in our day-to-day work at this client. To recap the project we're on: we are assisting a large law firm in designing and implementing an advanced future-state central data center. At present we are still in the design phase so there are a lot of decisions to be made about what the infrastructure will be and which future servers will take on the current distributed network's functions. So in short, we lead a lot of meetings, help our client make decisions, document the decisions, and then incorporate them into a design.

That means that while one of us takes notes, another will lead the discussion in his area of expertise. Or the discussion will take on new directions while we try to catch up on the notes. Having one person finish one thought (or edit it minutes later) while another takes up a new thread is totally invaluable. We have also been using shared sessions to edit things afterwards, like plans and minutes, and it has been working very well. In fact, today AB had an issue with his wireless connection during a particularly fast-moving and contentious discussion, and I found I was a bit out on a limb without him able to review my notes or correct them afterwards.

So on the whole, once I adjusted my working style away from using the pen to typing during meetings, the shared session has been a great help in our daily work at this client, and I think we are generating better logs of what transpires in the meetings and the decisions they make. I also think that we almost have an unfair advantage in being able to lob ideas back and forth and then document them. I have for six weeks or so been IMing with AB during meetings to provide commentary and advice during meetings, but maybe this is me being an old fuddy-duddy, but it just doesn't seem professional to obviously IM someone during a meeting whereas a shared note-taking workspace (even if we do sometimes make IM-like comments in it, which we immediately delete) keeps us more on a professional track and gives us better-quality notes and keeps us on point during meetings. We have invited our project manager into these shared sessions and while she cannot type quickly enough to take notes along with us, it has been kind of interesting to see her bring up points we discuss in the shared workspace. As she will soon be turning the project over to a different PM who I suspect is more technically savvy, it will be interesting to see how our shared session work habits change with a third active person on board.


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