OneNote Shared Sessions

It's been awhile since I have had time to update my blog, but it looks like I may be able to spend a little time on it for the next little while. I thought I'd try to do a series of posts on good or clever or original ways to use OneNote. Please feel free to share your stories with me - I LOVE hearing about how people use the product, and I will share the best ones with the team.


In my opinion, one of the cooler features of OneNote 2003 is "Shared Sessions" (this requires you to have Sp1 installed, as I know most of you have done already.)


A shared session is a peer-to-peer shared note-taking experience. "peer-to-peer" means you don't need some fancy server or web site. You just have to have a network where your machine can connect to other machines running OneNote.


You can set up a shared session with as many other people as you want - we have tried over 70 in our testing, but most people do it with 10 or less. It works best on an intranet, but you can also run a shared session over the internet or through firewalls, provided your firewall allows such connections.


The experience is kind of freaky at first - anyone can type or write or paste stuff onto the page(s) being shared, without waiting for other people to save or "pass the baton" or whatever. You just do what you want, and so does everyone else. It is a little like IM, except that instead of a conversation where everything goes one after the other with two or more discussions being jumbled together and the comments disappearing off the top of the screen, you can use the whole page and people can work on their own stuff. It is a little like a giant whiteboard that everyone can stand at and write stuff on, since just like a whiteboard, you spend more time reading what other people write than writing yourself. Plus rather than just handwriting or diagrams, you can type, paste in pictures, charts, graphs, etc. You can also add additional pages at any time, for supporting material, etc.


At first you may think this is just a trick that isn’t really useful, but you have to explore it to see the possibilities. For example, on the OneNote team every week we have a status meeting where development, testing, program management, marketing, user assistance (help, documentation), localization, support, planning, etc. come together to update each other on what is going on. In the "old" days, we'd all sit at a table and go around the room, with each representative saying their bit for 5min or so. The meeting usually took the full scheduled hour, and we often didn't have time for the important discussion after the status where we wanted to talk about what we were going to do. Some people never got to give their status since we got stuck on one topic.


In the "new" world with shared sessions, things are very different. First, one of us sends out a shared session invitation via email. This is easy enough - you just use File/Share with others, then choose to "Start a session…", which offers to share the current page. Click "Start Shared Session", then Invite Participants..., and send that invitation. Within a minute or so, people have joined.


Now, it is good to start with a template of some kind to provide structure. In our case, we have the team logo at the top, then we have sections like this:



Dev Status

Test Status

PM Status



The meeting organizer can fill in some meeting agenda items that he wants to make sure we discuss. So can others - at any time. This is great to start the meeting with, since everyone can see that there is this set of topics that we need to cover. That helps with pacing the meeting - how many meetings have you been to that ended with the time running out and people saying "But I wanted to talk about X…"?


At the same time, anyone can start to fill in the relevant section for their team. So right before your eyes, all 8 or 10 sections start filling themselves out, like some kind of magic book from Harry Potter. In 3 minutes or so, the entire team status has been entered, and you can read it all there, without waiting for people to verbally repeat all of it. This is so much faster than the old way that even with questions and people clarifying what they have written, the status part of the meeting is usually over in 20min instead of the 60+ min of the old way. In our meeting, the test team brings a whole set of charts such as our bug trends over time, support issues, stability trend, etc. They add a second page for these, and dump them all in there, ready made (copy/Paste from Excel). Each person can read those at their leisure, zoom in, etc. Way better than handouts (Color! Zoom!), and you have a permanent record.


If we adjourned there, we'd have saved time and it would be worth it. But what we find is that we can now use the rest of our shared time to talk strategy, or project management plan, or whatever other burning question that actually needs to be resolved. This makes the whole meeting much more valuable than in the past, since rather than just reporting information we are actually making decisions.


But it gets better. Sometimes one of us is late to the meeting, since they are stuck in some other activity. They arrive, having missed the first 20min. They open the email invitation to the shared session, and in seconds they have all the notes written so far. A quick scan and they are up to speed - now they didn't miss much at all, especially of the status reporting part. Even cooler, a few times I have not been able to make the meeting since I was stuck in some other meeting or conference call where my full attention was not required, so I opened the invitation in that meeting and was able to see what was going on. I was even able to ask questions by typing them on the shared page, even though I wasn't in the room, and was in fact attending a different meeting. "Freaky deaky!", you’re saying.


Now, this bit about not having to be in the room but still being able to see the shared notes, diagrams, charts, etc is key. We sometimes have people attending remotely, from California or Japan. In the old way, these people had to listen to speakerphone. If you've ever done this, you know that it is very hard to listen to a meeting this way, since the people physically in the room forget about you, speak quietly, draw on the whiteboard, etc and you can't follow. Now, with a shared session, you see everything they are drawing, and you also see the summary notes that someone (or multiple people) are capturing in real-time so it is much easier to follow. You can also draw a diagram yourself if necessary or just highlight part of a chart so you are not stuck having to explain your concept in words over the phone.


Ever had the experience of attending a meeting and then finding out later that all the things you discussed and decided were remembered differently by the other people in the room? Another great effect of shared notes is that you have a live record of the meeting that you can verify is accurate and even edit yourself before the meeting ends. That way things are very clear about what was decided, and you don't have to get some "minutes-taker" to understand a clarification you want to make to the notes - just edit it yourself. At the end of the meeting it is easy for everyone to review the written record of decisions made, so there is no confusion.


Wait, it gets even slicker. Sometimes you are in a meeting where you have "sides" (as in Group A is negotiating with Group B). During the meeting, it is really hard for the members of each group to stay in sync regarding their position, since they can't read each others' minds to determine how the others are reacting to new information unveiled at the meeting. But with shared notes you can set up a session just for your "side" of the meeting, and each of you can contribute. If any of you are taking notes, rather than have all five of your team take the same notes just take shared notes so more of you can listen at a time. You are going to have more complete notes with more time to participate yourself. You can also type things like "be sure to ask about X", or "let's be careful not to mention Y" or "what do we think of their plan?" (and get responses). That way you can manage your side's strategy much more effectively. If you are a consultancy, sometimes your client can ask you point blank for your opinions immediately after presenting their situation, and if you disagree with each other in your answers you're going to look silly. Well, just write down your thoughts in the shared notes as the client is presenting their situation to you, and you can be sure to know what all the members of your consultant team are thinking before any of you have to open your mouths.


So those are a few examples of using shared sessions. How are you all using it?