Got Notes?

What this is about

If you read this it is very likely that you are working in an environment where people (have to) use »Lotus Notes«. IBM has rebranded the software to IBM Notes (client) and IBM Domino (server), but what continues is that this communication & collaboration platform seems to make people unhappy.

The following is about what you as a professional should do in that situation:
Get to know your tool and be as efficient as possible with it!
That does not take long trainings, but a bit of curiosity and a minute now and then for trying out some features, a few of which I describe below.

Why is your company using »Lotus Notes«?

You are wondering why these IT morons have not migrated the enterprise to a more popular email client (Microsoft Outlook) and collaboration tools like Microsoft Sharepoint. Why are they torturing you with a client that nobody likes? There are potential answers beyond laziness or reluctance to change.

One good reason is that IT architects and administrators value some impressive backend features of Domino, including its security model and the powerful replication capabilities. Those things are hidden to you, the end user, but have a strong impact on the value and its Total Cost of Ownership.

Another reason why Notes is in your toolbox might be that some people in your company use the tool for more than just email. It is not trivial to replace the extended Domino/Notes features with more user friendly products. Microsoft Exchange and Outlook are not sufficient. There may be solutions that are more complete, but they come with other challenges: Data migration can become a nightmare, and user adoption cannot be taken for granted. In fact there is something a frustrated user may not believe - and I save the long story behind this provocative statement: To date there is no product on the market that can replace bad old Notes to the full extent: It is a document driven database (yes, the post modern NoSQL concept is indeed that old), easy to programme, with an impressive Rich-Text field data type that competitors still were not able to beat, and a security model that is still best in class.

IT departments expect to receive flowers for replacing Notes, but here is what an experienced Microsoft-IBM hybrid consultant told me: After the migration you just see the other half of the user base crying.

Why I don't like Notes

  1. During the long years that Notes is around, new Office software from various manufacturers became popular. They all come with similar, quite self-explaining user interfaces. This did obviously not impress the Notes designers. Neither their client nor the standard application templates look sexy or user friendly.
  2. Although equiped with a web server since many years, the web view of Domino applications still looks poor; the look of the 1990s build with today's technology.

Why I don't complain

  1. Nagging is a waste of energy.
  2. I thought: If this is one of my daily working tools, I better learn how to use it. Investing some time in self-education made my day-to-day work more efficient. In the meantime I have my doubts that other tools would allow me to work as efficient - despite of the horrible user interface.

How I get more out of Notes

Overview: Know the Features

You do not need to read the whole manual, but it is still stupid to ignore core features that would make you efficient. Your get paid to work efficiently, thus use the tools appropriately!

Notes is the heart of my workplace. Entries in my calendar and to-do items are linked to related emails and to Notes documents in databases. All documents end up in Domino applications (a.k.a. Notes databases), where I can easily group multiple attachments in one Notes document, and where I can then add text around them explaining what they are about etc. I also add tags or categories to these documents to group them or to find them back. Believe it or not: The search in these databases works great and is easy to use (other than the mail search).

Given the time that you spend with emails, calendar, to-do, and hopefully soon also with other Domino applications in the future) it is worth learning how to use at least some of the more advanced features. In the following you find some appetizers.

Small things first: Editing documents & mails

Some useful shortcuts to start with:

F2 Increase the font size
Shift+F2 Decrease font size
F8 Shift a paragraph to the right
Shift+F8 Shift a paragraph back left
Ctrl+K Open the text property dialogue box
Ctrl+Shift+L Displays all shortcuts and what they do

With a right mouse-click you can see and select many text formatting options directly (e.g. bullet lists). Shortcuts known from other office software work as well, like Ctrl+B to toggle bold font, Ctrl+I to toggle italic font, Ctrl+C to copy, Ctrl+V to paste text. Also very interesting for formatting and structuring Notes documents or emails are, from the »Create« menu, the »Horizontal Ruler« and »Section« feature: Just select one or more paragraphs and click »Create« > »Section« and you see. Right-click the section header and change the »Section Properties« at your convenience. You can create long documents or internal emails with a good, collapsed structure. Just don't use such features for emails to the external world.

By the way: My recommendation for external email is still to use plain text and thus be free of surprise. If the layout or graphic design is really important it could make sense to wrap your information into a PDF file or so, but most often plain text will cause the least pain.

Managing Personal Documents

I have asked an administrator to create me a Document Library and to call it »Hermann's Documents«. Document Library is one type of Domino Application (aka »Notes DBs«). I asked the admin to give nobody any access except me. Now I can maintain personal information in Notes documents. Records in a Document Library look like emails that have, instead of the recipient list, some other fields for meta information. One mouse-click to create a new document and then I can write text, paste images, and attach files. When I write a document I assign it to one or more categories. The categories I have defined are for example »Meeting Notes«, »Performance Reviews«, »Budget«, »Project Preparation«, »My Objectives«, »Recruitment«, »Personal Records«. The standard views of Document Libraries allow to look the files by date or by category. By the way: Many people don't know that you can collapse all categorized views by pressing Ctrl+- and expand them with Ctrl++.

Where I use attachments I sometimes need to edit them. This works well without detaching and reattaching: I just open the document, right-click the attachment and chose »Edit«. That opens the respective application (e.g. Excel or Powerpoint) and I can edit the document. At the end of the editing I just save the document in the application and close it. Then, back in the Notes client, I save the Notes document and can be sure the attachment is updated.

I like very much that I can archive Latex source files and images related to one document in one Notes document, usually together with the PDF result.

Of course I can search in all my documents and their attachments. In the poorly designed Notes user interface you have to find that first: In the top menu bar click »View« and then »Search this view«; then enter your search keywords. Well hidden, but working well. (Note that the indexing is not in realtime, so you may not find the latest documents. Ask your administrator about the indexing frequency.)

I take profit from the security features: Nobody can ever gain to these documents, except the administrators. If they did I would easily track that because Notes allows the user to trace back who has viewed or edited documents.

Sharing Documents and Tasks

In my team we are sharing a Team Room Domino Application. The Team Room is a bit like a Document Library, but has additional features. You can create action items, schedule tasks or trigger document review cycles. All people in my team have Editor rights, and finally we granted similar access to many other teams. That way we can easily share documents with them and ask their input. Editors can in Notes modify their own documents, but also those of others. If there was less trust we could limit permissions to Author (read all but modify only yours). But anyway: You can always trace who has modified my documents, and: Why would somebody come into your living room without being invited?

When I have created a document and want to show it to a colleague I just send him a link to the document. (Top menu: »Edit« «Copy As« »Document Link« and then paste it into an email.) That way the people will always find the latest version of my document. When it comes to attachments we sometimes keep a whole history of old version in one document with the recent version on top. Although: I am of the opinion people don't share enough and people collect too much old crap.

Discussing and Collecting

For some large projects or topics we ask an adminstrator to create a Discussion application. We create new threads, we place responses to existing threads, or write responses to responses - just like you know it from Internet forums. Often I use the so-called Newsletter functionality. It allows to subscribe to keywords or author names, so that I receive a summary with document links every day when new posts contain certain keywords or stem from certain authors I can specify.

Writing Emails

In internal emails or (IBM Sametime) instant messages / chats I usually do not send attachments, but instead send links to our Team Room or to another Domino application.

If I receive an email with an attachment for review I do as follows:

  1. Click on »Reply with attachments« (e.g. Microsoft Word).
  2. Write something like "Find my modifications in the attachment".
  3. Right-click the attachment, select »Edit« and modify the document in Word.
  4. Save the document in Word.
  5. Go back to the email and send it.

For email exchange with external parties the »Reply with Internet style history« feature can come handy.

So What?

My recommendation is: Talk to your Domino administrators if you have a need to save information, to store documents, or to collaborate. Ask them which standard templates (i.e. types of applications) they can provide and how to use them. You should successively learn how to efficiently use the Notes client. Play with Notes and try to detect one new feature per week!

Collaboration To Come

As mentioned above, an enterprise should not just make the other half crying by deploying a similar solution in different colors. In my opinion Microsoft Exchange and Microsoft Outlook are not the answers to today's challenges when it comes to collaboration and knowledge management. Nor is Domino / Notes. But that is a broad subject - much broader than this page. Stay curious!


© Hermann Faß, 2014