Using Notebooks to create and capture my knowledge

Notebooking enables me to be knowledge-savvy in my work. I am not alone in this vital practice.

Notebooking was a key part of the generative practices of knowledge masters Da Vinci, Edison and Picasso. In modern times, ‘Mythbuster’ Adam Savage is also a prolific notebook keeper. Unlike Da Vinci, Edison and Picasso, he uses digital notebooking. Adam acknowledges that the practice of putting his thoughts and ideas down in list form is pivotal to his work practice.

I write down things I know in digital notebooks because I want to remember them.  I want to revisit what I know, observed or reflected upon maybe months or years after I wrote these down. This is because I want to shape and play with my thoughts, to make sense of them or get a new angle on an idea.

Writing helps me to identify what I know and what I don’t know. Some of my knowledge is half-baked or incomplete and sometimes I write questions to trigger further thinking.

Ideas ordering – keeping the mind clear with notebooking

Writing down ideas is a way to create ordered patterns of what’s going on in mind.

Author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues in his book Flow: Psychology of Optimal Experience that the process of writing creates meaning from the information we receive:

“It is never a waste to write for intrinsic reasons. First of all writing gives the mind a disciplined means of expression. It allows one to record events and experiences so they can be easily recalled, and relived in the future. It is a way to analyse and understand experiences, a self-communication that brings order to them.”

Some of what I know is tacit and writing helps to expose this and find deeper meaning. This is particularly true if I have an audience or function in mind, for example; to inform, educate, or persuade others.

My notebooks are for personal knowledge use. I use them for personal knowledge rather than shared knowledge because they:

  • Are a private and precious space – I’m not exposed as I muse
  • Include content in the Development phase rather than Production phase
  • Record what gets my attention
  • Hold my deep and emerging observations about work issues
  • Reveal connections I’m making with what I know and what I’m observing
  • Help cultivate knowledge within me

Into the digital space – keeping electronic notebooks

I’ve kept physical notebooks for over 30 years. A few years ago I went electronic and implemented MS OneNote to support my notebooking practice.

Image-Electronic Notebook page

I made the shift because I desired features that hardcopy notebooks couldn’t provide. These included:

  • Input via hand writing, typing or drawing
  • Multi-colour content
  • Text, graphics, audio, and printouts held altogether
  • Search by word
  • Ordered and tagged for meaning
  • Copied for preservation
  • Easy to edit cleanly (erase text, or move text about on page)

There have been many advantages and benefits emerge from having an electronic tool for my notebooking activity. These include:

  • Merging personal and professional – my poetry notebook sits alongside my business notebooks
  • Less mass and more volume – I can keep adding notebooks and notebook content without a gain in physical weight
  • Re-editing and adding layers of annotation – content isn’t fixed so I can change or annotate it, I can insert new things between old things
  • Greater connectivity of content – I can use hyperlink feature to make and retain connections between pages
  • Better order and organisation – I can set up an order and reorder it as necessary, so the order keeps up with my current thinking
  • Quick and easy discovery – I can search by words, even those that are handwritten rather than typed
  • Multiple copies in synch – I reduce the risk of loss because I can have a copy with me as well as in the home or office
  • Sharing with others – I can allow others access to read and contribute

Learn about how I setup my electronic notebook

In the book Innovate like Edison, author Michael Gleb defined ‘keeping a notebook’ as one of 25 competencies in developing an innovation practice like the prolific innovator, Thomas Edison. Edison kept approximately 2,500 notebooks some of which survive to this day.

And famous inventor’s notebooks can survive to appreciate in other ways: one of Da Vinci’s notebooks was sold for $40 million to Bill Gates.

I wonder if my notebooks will survive a long passage of time. Whether a future someone will ‘dust’ them off, discovering something noteworthy or inspirational which will generate new knowledge for them and the world. Do I dare to hope it is so?

Helen Palmer is Principal Consultant at RHX Group. She thinks critically about knowledge work, and how to ensure knowledge isn’t wasted. She revels in tackling the big processes of change and learning, so that ideas become impact. With her colleagues at RHX Group, Helen helps teams make better use of their people, knowledge and information.

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