OneNote vs Email collaboration

Let’s have a look at a typical scenario that illustrates how inferior email can be as a collaboration tool.

Why email isn’t good for collaboration

You start off with a document in Word say. You create an email and attach the document, then send it to someone outside your business for review. If we assume both parties are using the cache version of Exchange with Outlook, you now have created three copies of that one file (call it version 1). The first, on you local machine, the second in your sent items as an attachment to the email you sent to your colleague and finally a local copy in you cached mailbox.

Next, assume that your colleague reviewed the document you sent by firstly copying it to their local machine. They modify the document (which we will now call version 2) and return it to you via email. Apart from the three copies of version 1 of the document at your location there are now two more copies of version 1 at your colleague’s (one in their inbox and one in the local cached version of the mail box). So we are now up to 5 copies of version 1 of the document. We haven’t finished yet though. There are also now three copies of version 2 of the document at your colleague’s, one on the local hard disk, one in the sent items attached to an email reply to you and one in the cached version of the mailbox.

Even before you receive the reply from you colleague the totals so far are:

5 copies of version 1 + 3 copies of version 2 = 8 copies of various versions of the one document.

Continuing on, you receive the amended document (version 2) via email and save it to the hard disk for review. That’s added another three copies of version 2 of the document (one in your inbox, one in the cache version of your mailbox and one copy on your hard disk).

So, for a simple 2 way review of a document we have potentially generated 11 copies and at least two versions of the same document. Think that’s bad? What happens if you were now working in a team of five people all reviewing the document multiple times instead of just two? You may now begin to appreciate how poor and inefficient emails can be for collaboration.

A better way?

There must be better way. Well, I believe using a combination of hosted SharePoint and OneNote there certainly is.

The most obvious solution would seem to be to host the document in a SharePoint document library and use the built in check in/check out features. That certainly overcomes the issue with multiple copies but it is perhaps not as good in solving the collaboration question of people contributing ideas to the document. A better solution I believe is to use a OneNote notebook, on a hosted SharePoint site in which the document is embedded inside OneNote.

Using OneNote still means that every member of the team has a local copy of the document but that is a good idea if they want to work with it offline. If you where to link to a SharePoint document library using Outlook you’d get the whole document library available offline which may be not what you needed. The embedded document in OneNote would allow the team to create notes, cut and paste information into the notebook, tag items and so on as well as work on the document. In the end it provides a complete and encapsulated collaboration environment.

Now, it would be possible to achieve the same result with SharePoint alone but I believe the simplicity of OneNote makes it a winner for most people used to collaborating with emails. As time goes by they could graduate to a SharePoint only solution but using OneNote with SharePoint provides a great introduction to the other benefits SharePoint can provide team collaboration.

As I mentioned in a previous post, when you install OneNote on your system it adds some additional buttons to your applications. One of these is in Outlook like so:

This makes it extremely simple to get information out of Outlook and into something more suited to collaboration. If you are using your inbox as a storage system for information that arrives in email why not take a look at using OneNote instead? You can download the trial version for free to see whether it works for you. Even if you simply use OneNote as your own personal digital notebook I think you’ll find that it will become an indispensible application.


Hopefully you can begin to appreciate that there are potentially many improved methods of collaboration apart from email. Hopefully you can also appreciate that tool like SharePoint and OneNote are designed with team collaboration in mind. Hopefully now you will thinking how much extra time you can save using the right tools for collaboration. Like all work, using the right tools makes all the difference. Remember you probably don’t get paid per email you get paid on how much work you get done.

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