CCO Public DomainToday we can find virtually anything we need to know on the Internet, whenever we need it, from wherever we are. But how do we sort through all this information, effectively filter content, judge the good from bad, and make sense of it all? How do we find things we’re not looking for but really need? And how do we make serendipitous discoveries that stimulate new thinking while we face increasing time pressures and an exponentially growing body of content to digest?

The answer lies across several domains of a knowledge worker’s practice. Our connections are certainly part of the solution. So too are our personal learning networks. These are good practices that help us grow our knowledge, but what we really need are mindful, disciplined processes for managing it on a daily basis.  What we need is to exercise personal knowledge management, or PKM.

PKM is distinct from organizational knowledge management, which is widely used today. The latter might be defined as, “the process of capturing, developing, sharing, and effectively using organisational knowledge.”1 Because knowledge itself is tacit, it’s virtually impossible to manage at the organizational level. Knowledge management systems only manage documents, or knowledge artifacts. Such systems are woefully inadequate to meet our personal knowledge needs in this fast-paced network era.

That’s why I believe in the importance of personal knowledge management. Only PKM can meet my needs, which only I know at any given time. My needs are dynamic and subject to change based on current circumstances and as situations evolve. Often I recognize a need only after I’ve accidentally discovered something remarkable.

Three Key Components of PKM

Personal knowledge management is, above all else, personal. What works for me won’t necessarily work for someone else. Therefore it’s important for each of us to develop our own processes, try different approaches, and adapt them as needed to make them a part of our daily work. They need to work for us, not someone else. Regardless how these processes evolve, there are three critical aspects to disciplined personal knowledge management:

  • Capturing knowledge, which encompasses finding, identifying, filtering, or even stumbling across useful information that we can then merge with our own body of knowledge and experience;
  • Developing knowledge, meaning to make sense of what’s been captured, think critically about how it reconciles with our previous perspectives and experiences, be creative with how to use the new information, synthesize new ideas by combining the new with the existing,  and put new ideas into action; and
  • Sharing knowledge, using any number of media that fit our personal needs, work styles, and professional social networks.

Capturing Knowledge

We all recognize Internet search as one way we find information. While it’s a deliberate act, it isn’t mindful on its own. More important is that we evaluate and filter the results of our search, which we do almost without thinking. We peruse the results and evaluate whether they’re relevant to our need. We then click them one by one and continue our evaluation. If we still haven’t found what we need, we modify our search and restart the process.

Still, seeking what we need when we need it is just a small part of mindful knowledge management. Capturing knowledge also includes finding relevant information we aren’t consciously looking for to stay up with new trends, learn what’s working in today’s workplace and what isn’t, and even make serendipitous discoveries that cause us to think or see things differently. This is where our personal learning networks (PLNs) become extremely valuable.

A balanced PLN acts in much the same way as sophisticated scientific equipment that amplifies valuable signals while suppressing the useless noise.2 While I may occasionally find something of great value on my own, it’s actually rare. On the other hand, members of my PLN share discoveries they’ve made from among their connections, who in turn shared discoveries. Much of this happens on social streams on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, or any number of other media where we connect with our PLNs, so it’s important to develop effective social media practices. Spending time on those media, engaging with our PLNs, is a critical part of PKM.

There are many other ways to capture knowledge, and new tools are released frequently. Social bookmarking sites, trade magazine articles, refereed journal articles, syndicated feeds, aggregation services, and a growing number of automated social tools can greatly simplify the process. Which tools work best for us is a matter of personal choice and subject to change as new tools become available. And it’s worth pointing out that the best tools in the world remain almost useless without a human in the loop. We recognize value where no automated process can.

Developing Knowledge

Develop-KnowledgeHow we individually make sense of information captured from many sources is deeply personal and often dependent on what we’re working on, responsible for, struggling with, or learning at the moment. This step in our PKM plan is partly about exercising common sense, but also requires critical thinking. Since creative content on the Internet is authored by a wide variety of individuals and seldom refereed, we need to answer for ourselves many questions such as:

  • Does it make sense?
  • How does it fit with what I currently believe?
  • Are there hidden biases?
  • Is it rooted in experience or research?
  • What’s missing?

Developing knowledge also includes synthesizing ideas by combining the new information with our existing knowledge to generate new concepts. In some cases, we even turn these new ideas into experiments, or change our behaviors as a result. Both can lead to substantial new knowledge.

But like any process that’s worth following, it’s important for us to be disciplined about it and put it into action. I like to schedule times during my week when I can digest captured knowledge and information. Much of my willful knowledge development happens quite naturally during these reflective times.

Sharing Knowledge

shareJust as social media streams are one way to find useful information, it is important for us to “give back” to those streams, to our network. This can help others by offering them the valuable information we find, with or without our commentary. It also serves to amplify valuable signals, elevating them above the noise, so others can more easily find them. At a minimum, this should be a part of every PKM practitioner’s social contract with his or her network.

There are other ways to share as well, including blogging, making videos, or creating podcasts. In addition to contributing to the knowledge of our networks, sharing what we learn as we learn it (“learning out loud”) offers tremendous benefits to each of us as well. Through this narration of our learning process and interacting with our PLNs, we clarify our thinking and deepen our understanding.

The processes we develop for our own personal knowledge management are up to each of us. Building relationships, establishing networks, and staying connected with others can happen organically, but personal knowledge management is a mindful process that must be developed ourselves, followed with discipline, and fit into our daily work.

Thanks for reading!

  1. Davenport, Thomas H. (1994). “Saving IT’s Soul: Human Centered Information Management”. Harvard Business Review 72 (2): 119–131.
  2. Semple, Euan. Organizations Don’t Tweet, People Do: A Managers Guide to the Social Web. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley, 2012.

Author’s Note and Acknowledgement

Much of my thinking and understanding of personal knowlege management I attribute to Harold Jarche. Harold offers a workshop on Personal Knowledge Mastery using his seek-sense-share framework, which parallels my discussion above. As luck would have it, his next workshop is less than one week away (starts January 12) as I complete this article. As a past participant, I highly recommend it to anyone who needs to develop or enhance his or her own PKM processes.


I Believe in the Importance of Personal Knowledge Management — 2 Comments

  1. Great post Tom. I find that I will forget about a useful tool or habit every once in a while, and then something random jogs my memory and I use it again. I’d prefer to forget about those useful tools less and be more intentional about how I sort through my thoughts.

    I like this idea: “I like to schedule times during my week when I can digest captured knowledge and information. Much of my willful knowledge development happens quite naturally during these reflective times.” I might need to borrow this practice and find a way to incorporate it into my routine.

    • Thank you, Brian. Reflective time should be scheduled and jealously protected. Unfortunately there’s a phrase, “If you want something done, give it to a busy person.” Highly productive people often end up with a disproportionate share of workplace tasks because they deliver results. That adds pressure to the calendar and, at least in my case, my reflective time gets squeezed out more than I’d like. Still, I try to move the calendar entry, rather than eliminate it.

      I did say try.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: