When I attend conferences, I see many attendees do what I do: type away furiously on their iPad or laptop, trying to take useful notes. For me, taking notes is a way to force some semblance of focus instead of letting my mind wander. Others may be doing the same or are taking notes in order to share their learning with colleagues back home. But isn’t it waste if we’re typing primarily the same content in our own devices?
Another benefit I've found of note-taking is having the opportunity to add my own commentary here and there about specific talks and concepts—perhaps adding an example from healthcare, reiterating something, or even disagreeing, all while being careful to clearly mark and highlight my commentary to distinguish it from speakers’ thoughts.
But all this note taking can be physically and mentally draining. There are times when I wish I had a note-taking partner or partners! Thankfully, Google Drive makes real-time collaboration possible.
In 2011 and 2012, I shared my document as a “read only” view. In hindsight, I wish I hadn’t done it that way. In 2013, I set up the document in a way that allowed readers to post comments (or this was a new Google feature). Readers asked about typos, made suggestions, etc. This created an additional, nicer level of interaction.
I invited one reader, Daniel Tse, to take notes with me. It’s pretty cool to take notes and see somebody else fix typos and add other notes as you go. Why do this? Because sometimes when you’re typing one thought from a speaker, you miss another. I don’t ever try to create a complete and perfect transcript, but some speakers share A LOT of ideas I want to get down.
The morning of the second day of the Lean Startup conference, I opened up the document and made it EDITABLE by all, not just readable. I was a bit worried about what might happen, but I really liked this collaborative note-taking thing of people typing together in real time. I wondered, why don’t people do more of this, especially at tech conferences? Are people doing this already?
Let’s Experiment at LEI Summits
I’m writing this post because I’m curious if there’s even a small number of people who are interested in doing collaborative note-taking with me in March or June, and I have a few thoughts and questions along these lines.
Does it work better to plan out, in advance, who the collaborative typers/editors are? Rather than making the document editable by everybody, should we have a team of three or eight or twelve people arranged in advance? What ground rules should be laid out in advance (what is our “standardized work” as note-takers?) Does it work better to have a “lead” (or two leads?) for each talk or session, where certain people have primary typing duties and others help edit?
Should people add their own commentary? Should this be done in the body of the document (marked in some way) or as a comment? What if there’s too much commentary? Too little?
Does the benefit of note taking come from having the notes or taking them? I could see this being like a value stream map or an A3 where the benefit comes from the creative process, not just having the document.
What happens if somebody is a jerk and deletes all of the notes? This is actually addressed pretty easily, because you can “undo” such a change (Google keeps a full revision history of the document) and that “bad actor” could be banned from the document. But how do you deal with the unexpected? What happens if people use the shared document to be blatantly commercial or self-promotional? Should they be banned?
Is Google Docs / Google Drive the best technology for this? Is it iPad friendly and technology agnostic? I know it would work equally well on a Mac or PC.
Is it better for everybody to take their own notes and then share them (as a link in the Google Drive doc or in some other online forum)? Are linear notes with bullet points better than mind mapping? Maybe somebody can sponsor a collaborative mind mapping group to work on a document together? It’s possible to embed photos people take during the conference into a Google Drive document (or even a video), or we can link to other places conference content is put online.
What other ideas, questions, or concerns do you have?
As with many experiments, I like to ask, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Perhaps the document becomes a complete mess, and then I just revert it back to being “me only” for typing and editing.
I think this is an experiment worth trying if others agree. Let me your thoughts in the comments below. If you’d like to participate, please fill out this Google Form survey.
To summarize, I think there is an interesting problem statement here… It’s difficult to take really good conference notes, and there is also wasted motion from many people typing the same things. Could there be a startup business opportunity here, too?
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