Bob Morris is a Project Manager and a Principal Scrum Master at ThreeWill. He has over 20 years of experience with successfully leading technology projects and teams in both project management and senior technical management positions. This experience includes delivery of software product development, enterprise software deployment and I/T infrastructure projects.
The Swiss Army Knife vs the Scalpel
I think we all agree that meetings, regardless of how well they are run, consume valuable time and almost everyone has at least a few meetings each week they can’t avoid. Meetings are also one of the most humorized and lamented aspects of today’s workplace. Nearly everybody hates (or at least wants to avoid) meetings – so we all ask, “How can we improve meetings?”. There is a growing focus on making meetings more efficient and collaborative as part of what some are calling the “Modern Meetings” trend.
“Instead, I want to focus some attention on technology support for an often-overlooked way to improve meeting ROI.. “
A Different Viewpoint
Try entering a Google search with the text “effective meetings”. In my case, this generated 231 million hits and an exact match on this phrase still generated over 803,000 hits. Obviously, there is tremendous interest in and recommendations for this subject. One of my favorite treatments of this subject is the “Meetings that don’t suck” video of a Google Ventures presentation.
However, the purpose of this blog isn’t to add to the information saturation on this subject. Instead, I wanted to point out that technical support for collaborative meetings is changing rapidly through new hardware and software tools and is a key “use case” for the digital workplace. Capabilities like multi-camera video conferencing, meeting chat, local and remote control of screen shares, virtual whiteboards, timers, post-notes, Kanban boards, co-authoring, video recording with transcription, and others are emerging and maturing. So, even a general discussion of these tools and how they improve meeting ROI for “Modern Meetings” is too broad for my purposes.
Instead, I want to focus some attention on technology support for an often-overlooked way to improve meeting ROI – meeting notes.
Collaborative Notes in Meetings
Ok – I’ll agree that taking meeting notes may not be a “hot button” topic for most people. However, proper meeting notes can:
- Provide a clear/referenceable shared understanding of decisions made
- Provide accountability (who made what decisions)
- Break down barriers of understanding and achieve alignment with stakeholders that may not have attended the meeting
- Centralize knowledge for key meeting topics
- Promote consistent/standardized meeting processes
- Create a culture of transparency and quality meeting outputs
- Drive action
In short, they can ensure some durable value for the time spent in the meeting which provides a tangible return on the investment of meeting attendee time – particularly if they can prevent revisiting meeting topics or misunderstandings on decisions that result in wasted time.
My high level “hit” list of key characteristics for effective notes that promote collaboration are:
- Accessibility– in addition to editing during the meeting, notes should be accessible for updating prior to, during or after the meeting (with traceability on who updated).
- Concise/Easy to Read– At a minimum includes: Agenda, attendees, decisions made, specific action items with owners, and expectations on next steps. They should also include a very concise summary of any key topics covered during the meeting but should avoid “transcribing” every detailed comment or conversation in the meeting (recordings can be made for those purposes). You need to aim for a high “signal to noise” ratio with notes. The longer they are, the less likely they’ll be completely read by anyone.
- Co-authoring– Generated in real time through the collaboration of all attendees. This can be extremely powerful as it allows multiple meeting attendees to edit the notes simultaneously. The ability for attendees to get this feedback in real time, allows them to adjust their note taking to compliment, rather than duplicate, what others are writing. This also avoids the extra step of combining notes after a meeting.
- Easily Findable– Notes are stored in a consistent way that is easy for both attendees and stakeholders that did not attend the meeting find them.
- Searchable– The content of the notes can be searched across multiple meetings for keywords or phrases.
OneNote vs Teams Wiki
So, what tools can promote the characteristics of effective meeting notes mentioned above? There is a pretty broad selection of note-taking tools that could serve this purpose. Also, there is a trend to integrate these tools into “collaboration hubs” which provide a single/unified access mechanism for teams to collaborate and perform most/if not all of their job functions. Two of the larger hubs gaining market share are “Slack” and “Microsoft Teams”. If you are considering the difference between the two, check out our Slack Enterprise Grid Alternatives blog post. However, for this post, I’m going to focus on “Microsoft Teams” which is part of the Microsoft Microsoft 365. Specifically, I’m going to summarize some key features/shortcomings of two tools for meeting notes that are available “out of the box” with an Microsoft 365 subscription: OneNote and Teams Meeting Notes.
I’ll also mention some third-party options that aim to “amp up” the note-taking process to include collaborative agenda, standardized notes templates, workflows based on action items and even meeting analytics.
To be fair, there are other tools that could be used in addition to/in lieu of the two I mentioned above for certain types of meetings. For example, Planner could be used to capture action items/tasks if the purpose of the meeting is limited to identifying tasks or steps in a plan or to track commitments and completion of those tasks. Another example is meetings that have a primary focus on updating a few key artifacts/documents might simply use a co-authoring tool to allow team collaboration on these artifacts. Microsoft Excel, Word, and PowerPoint all now have co-authoring capabilities.
OneNote Features Tutorial – “the swiss army knife”
OneNote originated years ago as part of the Microsoft Office software suite and has grown into the “swiss army knife” of note-taking tools in Microsoft 365. It supports the creation of notes that include a rich set of different content types in an arbitrary number of “regions” on a “page” that can be arranged in any order. Pages are organized into a robust hierarchy consisting of Pages or Sub-Pages that can be grouped into sections that can be grouped into section groups that are contained in Notebooks. Layered on top of this is a healthy list of features including tagging, drawing, spell checking, text translation, co-authoring with traceability, etc. In short, OneNote is built to handle note-taking tasks of just about any complexity.
The following screen capture shows a sample OneNote page for a meeting to illustrate some of the capabilities of this tool:
Support for the effectiveness “hit list”:
(Note – “Badge callouts” in the following list refer to numbered tags in the above screen snap)
|Accessibility:||· Meeting notes pages can be created in advance of meetings in any Notebook/Section/Section Group and shared with multiple users who can edit before, during or after the meeting using the OneNote web app or client applications available on multiple platforms|
· Authors of changes in the notes page are highlighted along with the areas they changed.
· Notes can easily be shared by authors via a link and people with access to a particular notebook can be viewed by the notebook owner.
· BONUS: Microsoft provides an Outlook plugin that auto-generates a meeting note page containing the original meeting invitation along with attendees [Badge #1]. This feature also adds a link to the meeting in Outlook which can be used to access the notes.
|Concise/Easy to Read:||· With a wide array of formatting options, notes can be tailored to any type of meeting (of course, in the wrong hands, this capability can also lead to complex/difficult to read notes see “EDGES” below).|
· In the above screen snap, rich text formatting, tables, images, and line drawing elements [Badge #2] are included with an overall layout of the notes into two rectangular regions (the first region is a header, key discussion points, decisions and action items; the second region is screen snaps.)
|Co-authoring:||· Good support for co-authoring. Multiple users can edit any portion of the note page simultaneously.|
· However, you need to “think ahead” about how you would use this feature as it can cause mass confusion when one user deletes/overwrites notes added by another user during a meeting. Also, there can be a slight time delay when co-authoring.
· One way to avoid confusion is to give users their own “personal space” for note-taking. In the above example, a table with separate columns for each “note taker” (in this case Bob and Karen) allows free flow of “Key Discussion Points” notes concurrently without confusion [Badge #3].
|Easily findable:||· This one can be a challenge due to the myriad of places notebooks/note pages can be stored. However, the adoption of a standard storage location/organization can avoid this issue.|
· Use of the Outlook integration feature can also provide a reliable mechanism for accessing notes, i.e., “click the link in the meeting invitation” to access related notes.
|Searchable:||· The search capability within the OneNote client can be used to search across all notebooks, within a notebook section/section group, or within a single page.|
· OneNote also has a tagging feature that can be associated with different parts of a note to identify the note part as a specific type of content, e.g., tasks, decisions, meeting attendees, important items, etc. [Badge #4]. Lists of these tags can be generated automatically from the note page, e.g., to generate a list of action items if they are sprinkled through the note page, etc.
Strengths vs. Edges of OneNote
- Complexity – OneNote is built to handle any note-taking task and the richness of content available can produce very professional results with modest effort.
- Manageability – OneNote is extremely flexible in the storage and organization paradigm you wish to use for your notes. Notes can be easily moved or copied between notebooks or sections within notebooks. Notebooks can be stored in OneDrive (personal or OneDrive for business) or SharePoint/Teams.
- Can be used completely standalone if needed, e.g., if you are attending a meeting outside of Teams and then share your OneNote meeting notes inside of teams.
- Complexity – The sheer number of features can result in meeting notes that are “works of art” but are nonstandard or difficult to read.
- Manageability – Because of the flexibility for storage and organization, it can be confusing to find notes unless a corporate standard is adopted.
- Feature Consistency Across Platforms – For years, the Windows application version of OneNote was the flagship product and often had features that weren’t available in other platforms. However, that is changing as Microsoft is replacing the OneNote desktop app in this year’s upcoming release of Office 2019 for Windows with the UWP (Universal Windows Platform) version. This is part of an ongoing effort to make features more consistent across platforms.
- Users with Office365 work or school accounts can only share at the Notebook level. So, Notebooks need to be organized with this in mind.
- Search – while the OneNote application provides a good search capability. It only searches notebooks you’ve opened within the OneNote application. So, for example, if you are a member of several Teams and each team has a OneNote notebook, you can’t search across all those notebooks unless they have all been opened in the OneNote application. Also, currently, the SharePoint search crawl doesn’t search within OneNote notebooks. However, Microsoft has announced the planned release of a “modern search experience” that will be a standard more all-encompassing search capability that may solve this problem.
Teams Wiki Tutorial – “the scalpel”
The distinguishing characteristic of the Teams Meeting Notes tool, in a word, is “simplicity“. This begins with the creation of the notes wiki page. There is only one way to create notes with this tool and that is to “join” a Teams meeting and click the “Take Notes” icon. This can be done in advance of, during, or after a meeting. There are two main types of meetings that can be used with this tool: 1) Teams Channel meetings (everyone with access to the Teams channel can attend or view notes outside of the meeting), or 2) Private meetings that occur outside of a Teams Channel with specific people.
For comparison purposes, the screen snap below includes a similar set of notes for the same meeting as above but using the Teams Meeting Notes tool in a “Channel” meeting. The visual difference is striking. However, the basic content is pretty much the same. You will notice a lot more white space in the notes below. That’s because this tool is based on a wiki with multiple sections in a vertical arrangement (there is no alternative layout as in OneNote – again “simplicity” is the watchword here.). Teams adds the white space to provide for UI elements that allow users to insert additional sections.
Support for the effectiveness “hit list”:
(Note – “Badge callouts” in the following list refer to numbered tags in the above screen snap)
|Accessibility:||· Meeting notes can always be viewed by “joining” the related Teams meeting before, during or after the meeting.|
· Notes for Channel meetings can also be viewed via a tab in the Teams channel called “Meeting Notes”.
· A third alternative for viewing Channel meeting notes is to use the “wiki app” in Teams (see screen snap below for an example).
|Concise/Easy to Read:||· Teams Meeting Notes definitely checks this box…notes are always organized in vertical “sections” with a minimalist set of rich text capabilities for text fonts, bold, highlighting, bullets, tables, and pictures.|
· Interestingly, these features provide most of what anyone taking simple meeting notes would need (as indicated in the sample screen snap above).
|Co-authoring:||· Things are a bit more limited here than in OneNote. Only one person can edit a section at a time in a wiki page. So, if you want to have co-authoring, you must set up separate sections per editor/author [Badge #1].|
· One unique function in Teams Meeting Notes that is “sort of” related to co-authoring is conversations…you can bring others (even people not attending the meeting) into conversations about specific sections of the meeting notes. As indicated in the screen snap above [Badge #2], each section has a “chat” icon that can be used to initiate a conversation in the Teams channel. Filled in icons indicate that a conversation is ongoing about that section (see screen snap below for an example). Note – Chat icons are only available when viewing meeting notes in the Teams Wiki app.
· Yet another way to bring others into the notes is via @ mentions. This means that you could @ mention someone who was unable to attend the meeting and they will be notified in Teams activity feed that they were mentioned in the notes. When someone is @ mentioned in a section, a “@” icon is displayed on the section header [Badge #3].
|Easily findable:||· There is no decision to be made about where notes are stored (that is handled automatically by Microsoft).|
· Meeting notes are stored as a web page archive format files (.mht) in the Team site “Teams Wiki Data” document library for Channel meetings and in a OneDrive for Business folder called “Microsoft Teams Data” under the account of the person who clicked the “Take Notes” button for private meetings.
|Searchable:||· This is a big gap for wiki-based meeting notes. Surprisingly, there is currently no way to perform a full text search across multiple meeting notes pages.|
· If you are using the browser version of Teams you can use standard browser functions to search within a page but that is certainly not the same as searches across pages.
|STRENGTHS||· Simplicity – Simplicity – Simplicity|
· Conversations around content within a note – both comments and @ mentions.
· Fixed storage mechanism ensures consistent location of data.
· “To be determined” – wiki pages seem to have a continuing role in the Microsoft 365 ecosystem. Their unique characteristics, i.e., simple/fixed structure with granularity at a page section level could be leveraged to more easily support some interesting features that compliance conscious organizations might want to apply to notes like DLP or data retention. Time will tell.
|EDGES||· The biggest issue here is search.However, the Microsoft Teams UserVoice site indicates that this feature is “planned” with no indication of possible availability dates.|
· Currently, the Teams Wiki app doesn’t support meeting notes for private meetings. This means the only way to view those notes is to “join” the meeting – this holds true whether you are viewing before, during, or after the meeting. Hopefully this will be more consistent in the future.
Strengths vs. Edges of Team Meetings Notes
- Simplicity – Simplicity – Simplicity
- Conversations around content within a note – both comments and @ mentions.
- Fixed storage mechanism ensures a consistent location of data.
- “To be determined” – wiki pages seem to have a continuing role in the Microsoft 365 ecosystem. Their unique characteristics, i.e., a simple/fixed structure with granularity at a page section level could be leveraged to more easily support some interesting features that compliance conscious organizations might want to apply to notes like DLP or data retention. Time will tell.
- The biggest issue here is search. However, the Microsoft Teams UserVoice site indicates that this feature is “planned” with no indication of possible availability dates.
- Currently, the Teams Wiki app doesn’t support meeting notes for private meetings. This means the only way to view those notes is to “join” the meeting – this holds true whether you are viewing before, during, or after the meeting. Hopefully, this will be more consistent in the future.
Tools that expand the impact of meeting notes
Multiple software companies are recognizing the value of collaborative meeting notes and meeting management and are conceiving new ways to realize that value. Although beyond the scope of this blog post, multiple tools exist as apps or plugins on top of collaboration hubs (Teams and Slack) to extend the concept of collaborative notes in several ways including:
- Agenda automation
- Knowledge Management
- Enhanced feedback (polling, word clouds, challenges, etc.)
- Analytics and ratings to measure participant engagement
- Workflow automation to translate meeting insights into actions (e.g., auto task recognition/creation, ideation triggers, and integration to other team collaboration tools)
A few of these companies/tools are:
Conclusion – Best Practices
Considering the costs as well as the importance of meetings in today’s Digital Workplace, it’s not surprising that the number of tools supporting these meetings is ever expanding/maturing and that all aspects of meeting communications, including meeting notes, can play an important role in team collaboration. Of course, these capabilities present new challenges, including for infrastructure, security, compliance, governance, and training to name a few.
From a “best practice” perspective, how you capture and manage meeting notes comes down to just a few key points:
- Approaches and tools are not one-size-fits-all. Pick approaches and tools that support the unique requirements of your organizations. Put another way, you should understand “why” you are using a particular tool or approach.
- Like other aspects of the Digital Workplace, you should recognize your Maturity level and the need to “crawl-walk-run” based on your starting point
- Efficiency, simplicity, and consistency – your approach should support all of these to build the corporate “muscle memory” that ensures meeting outputs are captured and actioned in the same way across your organization. This will promote the ability for anyone working in any area or project team in your organization to easily access and leverage meeting outcomes.