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Seven tips for success using OneNote as a project knowledge repository

If you’ve ever worked on a project (and if you’re reading this article I’d say it’s safe to say you have) then it’s likely you’ve encountered the challenge of sharing information among your team members. Keeping everyone on the same page and informed with what is going on frequently turns into hours spent creating and sharing meeting minutes, summaries, and then in the worst cases having meetings to discuss the meetings. Makes me shiver just thinking about it.

Enter OneNote. If you’re using Microsoft Office 365 then OneNote is already available to you. The trick is to put it to use. Let’s go over the key challenges and steps you need to take to use OneNote as a project knowledge repository.

Step 1 – Get your team on OneNote

No matter how much effort you put into building your knowledge repository in OneNote unless your team is already using the tool, you will have limited success. Make sure they have the application installed (I recommend using the Desktop version whenever possible due to the depth of features but you can use other versions as well) and are comfortable with the basic navigation of the tool.

Step 2 – Create a Knowledge Index

When it comes to managing information for a project in OneNote I recommend creating a separate notebook for each project at a minimum. This setup helps you organize and segment the project information making communication and management more efficient. Unfortunately without an index, the information within the notebook can become difficult to locate and use. By adding an index page to your notebook and creating links to the relevant content areas in your notebook as you create them, your team has a starting place for locating their information.

Step 3 – Create templates

One of the most important aspects of a knowledge repository is the consistency of the answers. If you go looking for a piece of information and then need a similar piece on a different topic, you’re wasting time interpreting inconsistent structures for the information.

Page templates provide not only a faster way to create uniform content in OneNote and prevent information from being forgotten during capture. The best example of a built-in template is when you use the Meeting Details function to set up a page to capture meeting minutes. The structure includes all the basic information you need for your meeting minutes with a single click.

Step 4 – Use sync for distribution

OneNote can sync content changes across notebooks for users. Rather than sending email after email, you can use this to make sure everyone has the most recent updates in hand. Sync can be a little temperamental at times so you need to train your team on troubleshooting and version tracking. If you absolutely have to send an email (I’m looking at you entitled executives) you can use the Email Page function to send a copy of a OneNote page to an email recipient.

Step 5 – Use section groups and sections to manage processes

Often we’ll have project information that needs to go through several stage gates before being considered complete. You can use the section groups in OneNote with sections inside to create these stage gates for moving content through to completion. Let’s take the example of creating content for a website. If you have a section group for “Content Creation” and then add sections inside for each step in the creation process you can move items between sections as they progress through your stage gates. The idea is somewhat similar to what you do with a Kanban board for managing processes.

Step 6 – Consistent updates

I have seen the majority of failures when using OneNote as a project repository when it is not used consistently. People have to develop trust in the tool as their system of record. If updates are not happening on a regular and reliable basis that trust will languish and die. The fact that OneNote takes over the work needed for distribution should free up cycles for providing more timely content.

An excellent example comes from our old friend, meeting minutes. So often these are captured, crafted, emails created, and distributed only to result in people “not getting the emails” or not reading them once they’ve arrived. If you’re using a shared notebook in OneNote, as you capture the minutes they can be available in real-time with no extra distribution work needed. Some project managers like to keep draft copies and “cleanse” the notes before sending them out and that’s easily done in OneNote as well. Capture your notes in a “draft” notebook and when you’re ready to distribute them copy the page to the correct section in your team notebook. As soon as the page sync is finished your team receives the meeting minutes. Even if they can’t get emails, they can still access the shared notebook at any time for reference.

Step 7 – Teach your team how to search

“I can’t find that information.” How often have we heard that? OneNote can be the panacea for your team especially if they struggle with locating information. On large or information-heavy projects, the search function of OneNote has saved my proverbial bacon any number of times. Whether you need to search in notes, meeting minutes, printout attachments, or screenshots, the information in the notebooks is at your fingertips.

Let’s take the example of a statement of work for a project. We all know these tend to be difficult to find specifically what you’re looking for when called on the spot during a client meeting. But what if you could have a copy of your statement of work, including your annotations about details around the requirements stored within OneNote just a search box away. Now you can find the “RACI Breakdown” or “Payment Schedule” on-demand rather than digging through cloud storage. Even more important, if it’s sensitive information for your project you can password protect a section while still keeping everything in one place.

The tip of the iceberg

There are dozens of more things to take into consideration when it comes to using OneNote as a project tool, but these seven steps will at least get you started down the right path. If you’re looking to get started down this path and have questions or want to learn more, you can find additional resources at some of these great locations:

OneNote for Professionals on Facebook

The Idea Pump on Facebook

Personal Productivity Club

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