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OneNote: How to use it in an organization

Posted by David Tappan | Sep 5, 2017 9:35:46 AM

What is OneNote?

OneNote is, as its name implies, an electronic notebook. It excels as a personal tool for recording ad hoc, unstructured information that you need to write down quickly without the need for a lot of planning and organization.  Information such as:

  • Names, addresses, phone numbers
  • Outlining/brainstorming documents
  • Research notes
  • Planning schedules and appointments
  • Meeting notes

Note that many of these information types may have a better place to record them in a structured way for sharing in the organizations.  For example:

  • Contact information can be stored in Exchange, either in your personal contacts or in shared contacts; or in a CRM system.
  • Finished documents should go in a document management repository.

Research notes and meeting notes, however, are particularly good candidates for long-term storage in OneNote.

Meeting notes also take advantage of a second key feature of OneNote—the power to share notes and even co-author notes with others.  Since OneNote can be stored in SharePoint (either on premises or online), and viewed either in the OneNote desktop application or in a browser using OneNote web app.

Figure 1.  Coauthoring meeting notes in real time.

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A third feature that makes OneNote so powerful for note-taking is the ability to search. One Note not only indexes all your typed notes; it also indexes handwritten notes, text embedded in pictures, and even words in recordings, using voice-recognition technology.

Figure 2. Search handwritten notes

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If you are using the OneNote desktop application, you can take advantage of a fourth feature of OneNote: synchronization and offline access.  OneNote constantly syncs your notes and the notes of others in shared notebooks, so you can access all the content offline.

How does OneNote organize content?

OneNote creates a visual metaphor of file folders and pages that is very intuitive and easy to learn. The container levels in OneNote have four levels:

  • • Notebooks
  • • Section groups
  • • Sections
  • • Pages

Since pages can also be “indented” one level, there are actually five levels of hierarchy. How you use this hierarchy is largely up to what makes the most sense to you and those you share it with.  Just keep in mind that sharing is done at the level of the Notebook, so if you want to secure content differently, it needs to be in a different notebook. However, section groups, sections and pages can all be moved within and among notebooks, allowing you to reorganize your content on the fly.

Figure 3. Notebooks, section groups, sections and pages

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How does OneNote storage and synchronization work?

The fundamental unit of file storage is actually at the level of the section: that is, each section is a .one file that contains all the pages in it monolithically.  This means that every time you add or edit a page in a section, the section .one file changes. Section groups and notebooks are actually just stored as folders, but they appear in OneNote to be no different than the sections.

Figure 4. OneNote file storage structure

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When OneNote is stored in SharePoint 2013, it’s important to store it in a special library that has all versioning and checkout turned off.  If versioning is turned on, it results in out of control storage usage, because a version of the .one file will be made each time you change a single page within it. If checkout is turned on, it will interfere with the ability to share your OneNote with others.

In SharePoint 2016 or SharePoint Online, Microsoft has modified document libraries and OneDrive to get around this problem.  If you are using OneNote 2016, OneNote files will be automatically exempt from versioning and checkout.  OneDrive also has its own synchronization to your local hard drive, and it wouldn’t make sense to sync OneNotes two different ways at the same time, so OneDrive also exempts OneNote files from synchronization.  It does this by syncing a shortcut to the OneNote workbook, section group or section into your OneDrive local copy, rather than syncing the actual folders or .one section files.

Topics: Microsoft, Microsoft Office, Office 365, Collaboration

Written by David Tappan