Q. I cannot keep track of projects I am working on or the procedures for my staff to follow. My desk is littered with legal pads scribbled with notes and incomplete ideas. I tried writing my notes in a Word document, but now I have Word files in random locations. What is a good way to organize all these thoughts and share them with my staff?
A. Microsoft OneNote, part of the Office suite, is intended just for this purpose. OneNote allows you to create digital notebooks to document and organize ideas, things to do, office procedures, and project notes. Each notebook can be divided into section groups, sections, and pages. The notebooks are shareable across an organization with either view only or edit rights, allowing you and your managers to create pages of procedures and documentation for your staff to reference.
At work, I have multiple notebooks that I manage, including ones called Firm Knowledge Base and Information Technology Knowledge Base. At my firm, we keep most of the departments in the Firm Knowledge Base notebook with each department separated into section groups. I separate out Information Technology because it contains some information we want to keep separate, such as our disaster recovery manual. Depending on your organization’s size, you might want a notebook for each department. We archive old procedures just in case we want to reference those old pages.
Let’s take a look at using OneNote as a centralized knowledge base and dive into some best practices for setting up an effective notebook.
Create a new notebook
There are several ways to create a new notebook, but the important point to remember is that it should be located in OneDrive. While you can create it on your local device, it needs to be located on OneDrive to have it sync with all devices.
To put a notebook on OneDrive, start by working on the version of OneNote installed on your workstation. Select File → New, click OneDrive as a location, click Browse, and select a location on OneDrive (see the screenshot below). Now that we are in OneNote, let’s get to documenting.
Section groups, sections, and pages
Before you write a note, it’s helpful to create a structure for your notebook. Organized notebooks are efficient notebooks. I like to have my section groups based on departments. To create a section group, right-click in the notebook and select New Section Group.
As an aside: One odd behavior I have seen in OneNote is that new section groups will be created in another section group. If this happens and you do not want the section group nested, you can drag the nested section group to the notebook name at the top to put the group at the top level. One last point to be aware of is that the section groups will always sort by name. If you want to force a specific sort, you can add a number to the front of the group name.
With the departments set up as section groups, we can move on to adding sections. I like to have my section separated out by project. To create a new section, right-click on the section group, select New Section, and name your section. In the example in the screenshot below, I created sections for Engagement Letter, Organizers, Pro Forma, Assembly, Billing, and Miscellaneous.
Now that you have your basic structure complete, you can add some procedures. In this example, I have created three pages in the Engagement Letter section: Preparing an Engagement Letter, Sending a Letter for Signature, and Downloading a Signed Letter.
Within a page, you’ll find headings and formatting options at the top. I am a big fan of bullet outlines when I am making notes.
One nifty feature of OneNote is if you drag in a PDF, it will give you the option to Insert as a Printout, which will display the PDF in the body of the page. You can also copy and paste the text from Word documents to OneNote.
Here are some other suggestions of sections and pages to go into the other section groups:
- Tax guides.
- CPE handouts and links to CPE recordings.
- Standard procedures that are part of all tax returns.
- Software how-tos.
You need to be able to quickly access all the information you have placed in OneNote. In the top right is a Search bar. You can search across all notebooks or in specific sections by clicking on Change. Enter your search terms to filter them to a list of pages that match. Clicking on a result will take you to that page, highlighting the locations of your search terms. In addition to any text that was typed into OneNote, the search will find text that is part of the PDFs added to a page.
A great use of search is for finding CPE courses. By including the handouts from CPE courses in OneNote, I can run a search across all the CPE courses to find a topic that I need to reference (see the screenshot below).
The last step when you create a new notebook is to share it with your organization. In the top right, click on the Share button and select Share Entire Notebook. Then click on Anyone with the link can edit, change the option to People in your organization, and click Apply (see the screenshot below). Lastly, click the pencil to set the rights for View or Edit. After you have created your settings, you can copy and paste the link into emails you send out to staff.
This should give you a good start on building your notebooks, but some other great features to explore in OneNote are Dictation, Tagging, Record Audio, and Page Templates.
About the author
Wesley Hartman is founder at Automata Practice Development and director of technology at Kirsch Kohn & Bridge LLP.
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