DEVONthink is a powerful Information and Knowledge Management system. With this go a lot of benefits. At the same time, depending on how you approach DEVONthink, your experience could be more or less not great. I want to set expectations clearly up front otherwise you could easily get frustrated with your use of this product.
In my article “Go Paperless with DEVONthink Pro Office” I outlined a strategy to go paperless by using DEVONthink in a very defined way. Doing this, I made it as simple as possible to accomplish the job. DEVONthink is an excellent tool to create your paperless office. However, if you were to tackle DEVONthink head on with all it’s capabilities you might never have found how to go paperless. Or you might have found it after a lot of hair tugging.
When tackling DEVONthink from it’s larger role though as an Information Manager and Knowledge Management system it is more difficult to approach the product in such a defined fashion. Yet, it is essential. I would avoid approaching DEVONthink head on as it can be a very daunting product to the person unfamiliar with it. Tackling a certain set of functionality at a time allows one to slowly master the product. Tackling too much at once could lead to a sense of being overwhelmed.
An Information Manager and a Knowledge Management System
As with many things, the lines are not necessarily drawn clear here. I would contend that DEVONthink is both an Information Management System and a Knowledge Management system. Many systems on the market are information managers but cannot be considered Knowledge Management systems in the strictest definition of a Knowledge Management system. An Information Manager is exactly what the name implies; it is a system that manages your information. To be an Information Management system it must be able to manage all forms of information and contain all forms of information from a simple text document, through to a PDF, an Image File and yes even on to a video file. For the sake of the size of the Information Manager’s database there are different techniques in which this is managed.
A Knowledge Management system is an Information Management system but goes beyond the strict realm of managing information to that of putting together information so that it imparts knowledge. As an example, by bringing two pieces of related information together you might go aha! In that moment, a piece of knowledge has been imparted to you. You see a relationship between the information that brings about a new sense of understanding. This could happen with a pure information management system but it would be more ad hoc in the manner in which it happens.
As I’ve said DEVONthink is both an Information and Knowledge Management system. There is great benefit to you in either part of this. You are in control of your information and you know where all your important information resides. This is significant. It’s all too easy to loose control of our information and not have a clue where we’ve put it.
In terms of a Knowledge Management system the benefits are great. A researcher or a writer is able to accomplish their tasks more simply if they are able to make links between things and come to new and different conclusions. The benefit of this cannot be underestimated.
With these benefits in play then we can ask ourselves is it worth learning DEVONthink. I will say at the outset it is for some absolutely. However, this is not a system I would recommend for everyone. The benefits do not outweigh the weight of learning the system for many. For many, they would not have the desire, inclination or background to learn a system of this nature. For many or most people a system simpler and more intuitive in nature would be more appropriate.
My favourite of this kind of system is Evernote. It is very easy to learn and highly intuitive and runs fairly well identically on OSX and IOS. Personally, I no longer have any use for local, Mac centric information managers such as Yojimbo, SOHO Notes or Together. Cloud based systems are the way of the future and Evernote is a fully cloud based system.
DEVONthink is a niche Oriented System
DEVONthink‘s benefits cannot be overlooked by any means. An Evernote cannot do what a DEVONthink does. A DEVONthink though cannot do what an Evernote does either. However, for certain people only DEVONthink will truly meet their needs. These people have a requirement to build knowledge. I am not saying at all that anyone who uses Evernote does not have the same requirement. It is just a matter of degree.
The researcher, writer, professor, grad student, medical student, Engineer etc will have different requirements. DEVONthink can fill those requirements which are both to provide an Information Management System and a Knowledge Management system. Certain people need to be able to see the relationships between information. They need to be able to construct the links between information and see what those links tell them now or later.
DEVONthink has an advanced AI engine that is very accurate in searching for what you’re looking for. It will find information and scale its relevancy to the search. In doing so, relationships between the information can be seen. DEVONthink will also suggest other items to look at that might be related to the prime search. In that, there maybe important relationships uncovered or not but should there be it might be the difference between good work and great work.
DEVONthink has a number of ways in which you can create relationships. It utilizes an hierarchical folder structure. In that folder structure, you can put together documents that relate to each other. DEVONthink supports tagging. Through tags you can group related documents scattered throughout the system in a logical fashion. DEVONthink’s AI engine, as discussed, is both a very powerful tool for finding information but also for seeing the logical relationship amongst the information it finds. And finally, you can link information directly to information. Links are a powerful way to pull together what you see as commonalities between information. At a later date, you might call up those links and have that aha moment and see what you were thinking when you made the links.
Relationships or relational information is key to DEVONthink’s power as a Knowledge Management system. For certain individuals DEVONthink will meet their needs exceptionally well.
I do want to add one caveat here. Although DEVONthink has an IOS product referred to as DEVONthink to Go it is primarily for the viewing as opposed to the manipulation of information. DEVONthink’s strength rests at the desktop. DEVONthink cannot be considered a good product for the mobile worker unless you are working with another Mac and not an IOS device. DEVONthink to Go, DEVONthink’s IOS product, is primarily a viewer product of your information. Secondly, it is based on WIFI sync and not cloud based sync, unlike desktop sync, so if you don’t remember to sync before you leave the house you’re out of luck. It is best to work with DEVONthink on OSX only as opposed to IOS.
Now that we have determined who DEVONthink is best suited for, how do you go about learning the product. My very strong recommendation is do not tackle the product head on. There is far too much to learn and it will overwhelm you. In fact, you will find long after you’ve gotten through the learning hurdle you will always be learning where it comes to DEVONthink. There are many ways to go about doing something in DEVONthink. There are also many things to be uncovered.
In terms of which package to choose as there are three, I would choose DEVONthink Pro Office. This is by far the most powerful and flexible of the bunch. It will allow you to achieve your paperless office goals, run multiple databases and more.
To start, you’ll need to consider an application or two that you might have for DEVONthink. One might be to “Go Paperless with DEVONthink Pro Office”. This would allow you to get a feel for the product while accomplishing something very constructive. You might also decide that you want to store all important email in DEVONthink for future reference and also relationships.
However, really before you do any of the above, you need to start with how do you want to structure your information. Do you want your information contained in one master database or in two or more databases. Decide on a simple hierarchical structure for the database and build on that. Consider a good use of tags to pull disparate pieces of information together. Finally, I would then consider links. You’ll have to refer to the documentation to learn how to setup links but these are very powerful tools to draw your information together that you specifically decide is joined one to the other.
DEVONthink has a very good manual that goes with it however, it can get a bit technical. One very good source of additional information in the understanding, building and using DEVONthink is Joe Kissell’s book “Take Control of Getting Started with DEVONthink 2, Second Edition”. I’m actually a big fan of the Take Control series of books in that they provide both a way of understanding what a product can do and how to do it in the least technical fashion possible.
As You Get to Know DEVONthink
As you get to know DEVONthink you will slowly appreciate the power that you have with the product. Unquestionably though, you will go through frustration a long the way. I call this breaking through the learning hurdle. However, once you’ve broken through, you will really be able to appreciate what DEVONthink can do for you. Bear in mind the caveat’s I presented otherwise you’ll get frustrated.
No doubt as you master DEVONthink you’ll have a wish list of the kinds of things you’d like to see it be able to do. Do not be reticent in inputting those requirements and that kind of feedback. It helps fashion the future of DEVONthink. Mastering DEVONthink is not only rewarding in what you will now be able to do with it and the outcomes you can produce but you will feel more empowered. This is more than a worthwhile product for the right individual. I wouldn’t ask Grandma to use it as she captures her cooking recipes but for the budding writer or researcher in you it definitely will help you a long your road.