Collaborative Notetaking

Guidelines for Collaborative Notetaking

Scope

We’re talking about CodiMD, HackMD, Google Docs, Office365, OnlyOffice, Dropbox Paper, Polynote, Quip, Notejoy, ShareLaTeX, Overleaf and other services supporting note-taking and working at documents in one place together with remote team members either at the same time or asynchronously.

Task

You're responsible for leading a group of people who work distributed in a team - or you support someone who is. Before or after various occasions such as meetings and presentations, the event requires agendas, meeting minutes, notes, document drafts or even complete and final documents to enable transparency, simplify decision-making and increase the performance of your team.

Situation

You are going to run an in-person meeting or more likely a conference call. You need to keep the get-together on track with an agenda and you need to keep a record of reported states, discussed issues, agreements and decisions, upcoming tasks and other results.

Challenge

You are the one in charge of taking the notes - quick and precise, with additions from, and the consent of, all participants - and you are in charge of making actionable notes available for everyone immediately after the meeting. However, being in charge does not mean that you have to work out the notes alone. Instead, all participants are invited - or better even, obliged - to not only follow the note taking directly but also to contribute when misunderstandings, misinterpretations, delays in record keeping and other obstacles hinder the success of a joint meeting.

Approach

Set up a document in advance which is accessible for all participants. It should contain the agenda with references to the relevant material. This includes information on collaborative note-taking, how to prepare and what is expected from the participants by providing a set of rules for the note-taking process. Additionally, reserve a time slot in the beginning of the conference to make sure to get everyone on board and communicate who is in charge of the final notes, or at least of curating the collaborative notes.

Options

Below are a few suggestions that might make it into the set of rules for your team to make everyone feel comfortable and more productive during a meeting while collaboratively taking notes or while collaboratively writing a document together.

  • Select a tool meeting your needs
    When selecting a web-based tool for collaborative note-taking offered by a cloud service provider you should know the expectations of the meeting participants, collaborators and other stakeholders, especially in terms of the look and feel, the functionalities, and their suitability in the intended workflow. Furthermore, security - including authentication and authorization - as well as data protection are non-functional requirements one should have in mind when sensitive content or personal data will be stored in these documents.

  • Set-up the document in advance
    Before the meeting, prepare the document to be used for collaborative note-taking: include the intended agenda with topics, times and timeframes as well as responsibilities and expected results. If required, refer to related documents and other sources to allow preparation for the participants in advance and to have everything at hand. Leave space close to each agenda item thus indicating the place to facilitate inline note-taking in the agenda so that the document automatically becomes the meeting minutes with contributions from everyone attending the meeting.

  • Set-up a reusable template
    If the prepared document has worked in the meeting, consider the creation of a template to allow an efficient preparation for regular meetings.

  • Allow access and share the document
    Depending on the options of the cloud service provider for giving others access to the document, you may set different access levels, e.g., full editing, tracked editing, commenting, or read-access only. You might give access to the public, or to specific individuals who need to have an account with the service provider. While giving access to specific people protects the document from access by others, publicly accessible documents can be factually protected by sharing the URL address of the document with specific people only. However, even if a long and cryptic string within the URL offers limited protection, public documents can still be found by chance or on purpose through URL guessing with automated requests. So, in any case, remind participants not to share further the URL in case of confidential or sensitive content, or do not allow access to the public and give individual access permissions, if possible.

  • Make yourself comfortable with the note-taking tool
    Once you have access to a document used for collaborative note-taking, open it and explore the behaviour of and functions available in the tool with the permissions given to you.

  • Make yourself comfortable with the note-taking itself
    Effective note-taking requires effort and simultaneous interaction with the notes. Stay focused during the meeting, pay close attention and actively participate. This helps optimize the results from the meeting. So make yourself comfortable with each of the note-taking phases - they all require a different behaviour of individuals and the group of collaborators in certain stages of a meeting and of the note-taking.

  • Double-check information about you
    Check if your name and your affiliation are entered correctly in the respective field so that the host and others know who you are, can address you by name, and identify your contributions and comments in the document.

  • Introduce the note-taking process
    Collaborative note-taking requires a certain amount of discipline. Everyone should be aware of the intended process for taking notes together. So a quick recap of rules in the beginning of a meeting helps everyone to contribute to the note-taking process. This includes to name the responsible person, ask everyone else to contribute, and outline how to contribute by repeating the relevant rules from this list.

  • Take notes, contribute and follow
    If you don't speak, either listen and take notes in your own words to paraphrase what you understand, or, if you don't write, follow other people’s notes, review them, and comment them according to how you have understood the subject matter.

  • Provide immediate feedback and clarify discrepancies
    When you identify different understandings while taking notes together with others, then don’t feel shy and speak up to clarify them directly in the meeting and keep track of the clarified understanding in the notes immediately. Speaking up could mean adding a comment in the notes to be taken up by the host or other participants to clarify. Also, take up comments of others and clarify different views, either by correcting, e.g. typos or misspellings, by commenting, or by chatting in the note-taking tool, or - if this doesn’t solve a different understanding - by initiating a short discussion directly in the meeting.

  • Ask information and questions for further discussion
    If necessary, add further information not yet discussed or add questions to be discussed so that these information can be taken up by the host in the further discussion of the meeting.

  • Stay structured and organized
    Take notes for important, relevant, and non-trivial information, for decisions, for tasks, upcoming events and anything else that will be of any help personally for you at a later point of time thus allowing you to retrace and understand what was reported, discussed, and decided - and why. Write in phrases, not complete sentences, use bullet points and lists where possible, and develop a consistent system of abbreviations and symbols together with the others to save time as you take notes.

  • Earmark and highlight take-home messages
    The use of key words and colours are options to label and emphasize specific items that are important for the group and easy to spot throughout the document. Often this is group-specific and must be negotiated within a team beforehand, so that everyone deals with it in the same way. Take cues to apply labels, e.g. “task”, “todo” or “decision”, keep priorities, e.g. “important” or “postpone”, define deadlines, e.g. by giving dates, define responsibilities, e.g. by naming persons, and use highlighters and colours, e.g. to indicate key ideas, changes in concepts or links between information. Use these earmarks and highlights at the end of the meeting to go through and wrap-up the important take-home messages. If necessary, allow for some time to work on the notes or discuss them again in the meeting until all agree with the notes which represent your results.

  • Finalise the notes
    Reserve time to finish the notes immediately after the conference call or in-person meeting when discussions, results and other things said can be remembered more easily. Finish bullet points that may have been left incomplete or misleading. Order items if necessary. Double-check wording, spelling and grammar.

  • Share the notes and ask for corrections
    Finally, share the polished version of the document with all participants providing a fixed time frame for possible feedback, corrections, and comments. Provide a clear procedure for adding changes and comments so that they can be traced subsequently.

  • Accept final contributions, freeze and share the document
    Integrate subsequently provided feedback, corrections, and comments, finalise the document, and make the final version available for the target group after freezing the document so that no changes can be applied further on. Freezing a document can be realised by creating a separate PDF version of the document and integrating an appropriate comment or reference to the final version in the original note-taking document. In any case and if possible, freezing a document should additionally be realised by withdrawing permissions for editing the original document in the web-based tool for collaborative note-taking offered by the cloud service provider.