Microsoft SharePoint

Combining OneNote 2007 and SharePoint 2007 for Team Collaboration: Can You?, and Should You?

Two products from Microsoft — OneNote 2007 and SharePoint 2007. One goal: effective team collaboration. Can you combine the power of the freeform OneNote with the greater structure of SharePoint and get something good happening? And even if you can, should you?

This is my take.

Can You? The Technical Options
You can combine the power of both tools for team collaboration; it’s definitely possible. Microsoft’s built some great points of integration.

  • A OneNote 2007 notebook can be stored in a folder in a SharePoint document library. Anyone with access to the folder can see the main sections in the OneNote notebook, and can click any section to open the notebook in their copy of OneNote. The OneNote notebook is called a “Shared Notebook”, and is being shared via SharePoint (there are other non-SharePoint ways to do this too).
  • Other people can also open the notebook directly from OneNote, by doing an “Open Notebook” and navigating to the appropriate document library in SharePoint.
  • Each section in the OneNote notebook — and a “section” is the equivalent of a “tab” in a paper notebook binder — is shown as an item in the SharePoint document library. If your notebook has 5 sections … you’ll have 6 items in the document library, the additional one being an automatically generated table of contents. Note that “pages” are contained within “sections”, so if a section has 10 pages, you won’t see that from the SharePoint document library; you will only see it when you open the notebook section in OneNote.
  • When anyone with access to the shared notebook makes a change in the content on one of the existing pages in the OneNote notebook, the change is synchronized back to SharePoint, and then out to all of the other copies of the notebook.
  • When a page is added to a OneNote section, the page and its content is synchronized back to SharePoint, and then out to all of the other copies of the notebook.

From my tests in the lab, it seems to work as promised, although I have experienced some delays in changes from one notebook going across to the synchronized copy on a second machine.

Should You? The Key Decision
I admit upfront to being a bit hesitant about advocating the use of both, for one main reason: If you have one place to look for the current health and status of a team project, each person has a high degree of certainty that they are in sync with everyone else. But once there are two places, or more, there is a higher degree of uncertainty, a greater nagging sense of “What am I missing?” And the freeform nature of OneNote makes me particularly concerned, because ideas, actions, notes and documents of importance can be scattered throughout a notebook — perfectly within the context of where they should be — but unless everyone uses OneNote in a common and agreed manner, everyone is going to be potentially confused.

The decision on whether to do this or not comes down to this: Where is the master location for storing the information for team collaboration? Is it SharePoint, is it OneNote, or is it a mixture of both?

If OneNote is used to take meeting notes, that means the meeting notes sit in a different place to the meeting in the calendar. Everyone needs to know where to look for those notes, if OneNote is used.

If OneNote is used to take meeting notes, and next actions are also recorded on that page, the process of team collaboration will “work” if those next actions are then created in a SharePoint task list. If they aren’t, no one can see at a glance what they are supposed to be doing next on the project. Although you can mark any item in OneNote with a task flag, and then summarize across all notebook pages, and indeed across all notebooks, that summary does not distinguish who is actually supposed to deal with the action point. So if there are three action points that have been created coming out of a meeting, and you only have to do one, when you search in OneNote for tasks, all three will show.

On balance, keep your team information in SharePoint, and use OneNote 2007 in an ad-hoc way to support meetings and brainstorming sessions, but don’t create another separate place for the storage of information about the project. And definitely don’t do things like creating tasks in OneNote and linking them through to Outlook, because then you have a separate list of things to do.

There’s another way to think about it though, and this changes the scope of the recommendation from a team-level to an individual-level recommendation. Have all of the team information in SharePoint — the meetings, the milestones, the tasks, and more — but if individuals want to use OneNote as the working place for their project contributions, go for it. OneNote is an unparalleled tool within the Microsoft product line for creative work on projects. But think of it as a tool for individual productivity. Remember, there’s a delicate balance — you have to work as part of the virtual team, but you have to do lots of work by yourself too. And some of the work that you need to do by yourself can be done directly in SharePoint, but you don’t have to do everything in there. OneNote provides a place where you can get some of that work done. And then also, when you are working in OneNote, and let’s say that there is going to be a meeting and you want to take some notes during a shared session, go ahead and use your OneNote notebook to take the notes and SharedView to display them for everyone to see, and then when you are done, publish that page into SharePoint against the meeting.

This also deals with one of the features in linking OneNote and Outlook that doesn’t translate across to team collaboration. You can link a meeting that shows in your Outlook 2007 calendar with a page of meeting notes in a OneNote 2007 notebook, and the link is perpetually kept for as long as the meeting is in existence, even if the page is moved around in the OneNote notebook, or between OneNote notebooks. But this link only works for the person creating the link, and if the OneNote notebook is shared, even if the other people sharing the notebook have that same meeting showing in their Outlook 2007 calendar (eg, it’s a SharePoint calendar), the link won’t work. It is a person-centric link, not a team-centric one.

Michael’s Net-Net
My sense is that, on balance, you are better to not use OneNote 2007 and SharePoint for the team project, because it will see a separation of materials between the two places. Because OneNote is such a rich environment, it will take a high degree of nouse for the people on the team to master how to use it well with the project.

If you are currently a OneNote user, and want to use it for your personal planning and contributions within the SharePoint project by all means do so, and when you are ready, submit the content you have created to SharePoint using one of the other commands at your disposal. For example, you can work on a page within OneNote, and then when you are done use the “Publish Pages” command to post it up to the SharePoint team site as a web page. The page will retain all of the formatting and layout that you were using in OneNote, thus making it look the same. Or you can use the “Publish Pages” command and publish the page as a Microsoft Office Word 2007 document, again to the SharePoint team site, although with this option, much of the rich formatting and layout is lost.

What About You?
Are you using OneNote 2007 and SharePoint together? Tell me more! And how are you avoiding the issues above … what have you done to make them non-issues?