Using IBM Connections to Take and Synchronize Notes across Devices

What works well, and what can be improved…

I’m a digital note taker, having given up pen and paper many years ago. Since then, I have tried out the most popular note taking apps and services on the market. Microsoft OneNote with all of its features, tabs, menus, and colors was just too busy for my taste. Simple Note — quite possibly the opposite of OneNote — may have been a bit too sparse in it’s infancy. Evernote provided a great balance between the two, but later lost some of its simplistic allure for the sake of keeping up with competitors and adding features which led to complexity. And then they limited the number of devices I could use and that ended the relationship. Apple built up its note taking app, Notes, over the past couple of years and I really enjoy using it.

Except I have one problem: we block iCloud synchronization over our corporate network. My workaround for the last year or so has been to use Exchange synchronization. This worked fairly well; however, most of the new Notes features were unavailable to me. Basically, I got very simple note taking with only a few formatting features but I was able to synch my notes across my MacBook, iPhone, iPad, iMac, and in a pinch my Windows desktop that I sometimes, albeit rarely, use. Everything was going well up until the recent Apple update of macOS to Sierra when my Exchange synchronization stopped working. To be honest, I haven’t had much free time to troubleshoot and determine if this is an anomaly or an unfixable (requiring policy change) problem. Instead, I started using Connections for my primary note repository. Here’s what I’ve done.

What works well…

I first setup a private sub community, named it Notes, deleted the default apps, and added a blog. The only features then within my Notes community are the blog and status updates. I use status updates as a quick and simple way to take a short note. I use the blog for longer form note taking as well as a way to save articles I read around the web. I also set the community start page to the Blog.

Using the Blog to take notes is pretty straight forward. Each new entry is a note. I use tags to categorize and organize them. I can embed images and link to files along with all of the other rich text editing features available.

I’m also using my Notes blog to save articles and webpages I want to read or take action on at a later time with the Add Bookmark bookmarklet. You can access the built in bookmarking tools from the footer of any Connections page. By adding the Add Bookmark button to my browser’s bookmark bar, I can send any webpage straight into the Blog in my Notes community. I can add tags as well as any additional description that I would like, saving it for later to take action on when I have the time.

Within the mobile app on iOS, I wanted to have quick and easy access to my notes. At first I thought I would simply add the community to my Favorites. This works of course, but it doesn’t give me the quickest access to my notes or the speediest way to start a new note as possible. For the quickest access, I first went to the Blogboard by opening Blogs under Apps in the sidebar menu and then selected My Blogs, which brings up my Notes blog. You can then save this view to your Favorites, which will take you right to your latest note and gives you the new entry icon easily accessible on the top right of the screen. The Blogboard view on mobile is a good interface for quickly accessing your tags as well as seeing all of your notes in a simple list.

Tags and the Archive list from the Blogboard view on iOS

So, it works. The Blog app within Connections isn’t necessarily designed to be a note taking app but it can get the job done. For me, the ability to access my notes on any device makes it easy to overlook the shortcomings that this setup presents. But, while I am at it, I might as well talk about a few things that would make this setup more than just a workaround or stop-gap for more Connections users.

What can be improved…

First and foremost, I wish Connections had a dedicated note taking app built in that was specifically designed for users to take and share notes. This has always seemed to be a missing feature that would work very well within the toolset. Here are some of the features that I would like to see in a dedicated notes app:

  • Ability to create, edit, and manage private notes in a devoted space
  • Ability to share notes with other users much like the file sharing capabilities already in place
  • Simple interface with fewer options than full featured word processors
  • Dedicated mobile applications for tablets and phones that greatly streamlines the steps required to start taking a note
  • Integration with iOS and Android to enable sharing from other applications and browsers directly into a note or as a stand alone note
  • Ability to “promote” a note to a blog post

These are just a few of the characteristics that would improve the productivity of Connections users through a dedicated notes app. The notes that many employees take — whether with pen and paper or in an application — are one of the largest troves of untapped, tacit, unstructured data stores that exists within the modern organization. IBM Connections has the opportunity to help us tap into this knowledge, but first it will need to be a key feature instead of a workaround.

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