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How you can organize your tech discovery findings, using tools you already have–without ending up in ‘information management process hell’

Let’s say you are researching a new technology. You found some companies, some papers and patents, perhaps some blog posts. And there are some views in Mergeflow that you’d like to keep as well so you can revisit them; things like inventor networks or market analyses, for example. You might also want to add entries from your notebook.

And perhaps you’d like to group your findings by subtopics, add a few comments, and some other things from around the web, such as images.

What’s the easiest way to do this? And how can you share your findings with others, perhaps invite others to contribute?

PowerPoint and Word aren’t made for this

Anyone who has ever tried using PowerPoint for collecting and organizing information around a topic knows that it isn’t made for this purpose. While there are many reasons for this (see, for example, Edward Tufte’s The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint), in my experience, one of the biggest problems are the slides. The slides are a problem because they force you to partition your contents in a certain way. And very often, this way simply doesn’t fit the logic of your contents.

Compared to PowerPoint, Word at least has more space on a single page. But you still have to partition your contents in ways that don’t work for you. It would be much better to have something like endless paper or papyrus rolls, but in digital.

A 'digital equivalent' of these papyrus rolls would be better for collecting and organizing findings than PowerPoint or Word. Image by Jtafalla from Getty Images.
A digital equivalent of these papyrus rolls would be better for collecting and organizing findings than PowerPoint or Word Image by Jtafalla from Getty Images

Information management software probably won’t work either

Information management software works great for situations where you can standardize information structure and flow. For example, consider aircraft maintenance manuals or other technical documentation. Making an edit to such a manual is a highly structured and regulated process–for very good reasons. And information management systems are great for implementing these processes.

But tech discovery is different. It’s a highly iterative process that’s hard to predict. In fact, if you could predict it, it wouldn’t be discovery.

This is not to say that we want chaos, of course. But we need flexibility. And trying to force tech discovery into rigid processes quickly leads to information management process hell. So we need something that’s more agile than information management systems (by ‘agile’ I don’t mean ‘fast’, rather ‘being in control so we can get what we want, without being overburdened by process’).

What we want from a tool

Whatever tool we use, it should be…

  • …like a “digital papyrus roll” (endless), no slides or pages structures.
  • …easy to create and update.
  • …designed to be “online first”, so that it’s easy to store links to online contents, such as papers, company websites, news articles, or links to Mergeflow views.
  • …secure, and with backups etc. all taken care of.
  • …easy to share with others in our organization, even if they are not in your team.

The good news: You probably already have the toolset you need

Fortunately there are good tools that meet all the criteria above. And it’s very likely that you already have one. These tools are called note taking apps, and there are many different ones. For example, many people use Evernote. I use Notion.

If you work in a big organization, chances are that you have Microsoft Office365. Office365 comes with OneNote, which is another note taking app.

Notion vs. OneNote

Like I said, I happen to use Notion. For example, here is my collection of findings and comments for my recent blog article on bioreactors (click on the image to see the document in full):

My findings and ideas collection for my recent bioreactors blog article, created with Notion.
My findings and ideas collection for my recent bioreactors blog article, created with Notion. Click here to see the collection.

And here are the same contents in OneNote (click on the screenshot to see the OneNote document):

My <a href=httpsscopemergeflowcombioreactors making food materials 3d printing recycling target= blank rel=noreferrer noopener>bioreactors content collection<a> in OneNote <a href=httpsmergeflow mysharepointcompersonalflorian wolf mergeflow com layouts15Docaspxsourcedoc=c3f465fc 81eb 40d0 85b4 e77e555065caaction=viewwd=target28blog20articlesone7C30fb5d3c 55ef 5544 8167 4f05d5b45d1c2FBioreactors20Using20organisms20for20making20food20and20materials2C7C5c4d1b69 3b97 d04d bc34 0fd5436238b42F29 target= blank rel=noreferrer noopener>Click here<a> to see the OneNote document

So… which tool should I choose for organizing my findings?

Yes, there are differences between these note taking tools. But if in doubt, I recommend using a tool that’s already part of your “tool landscape”. Particularly if you work in a large organization. The advantages of using what you have are clear:

  • Chances are that many others in your organization also have access. This makes it a lot easier to share and collaborate on contents.
  • Security and backups are taken care of.