The 3rd KM: personal knowledge management


Personal knowledge management (PKM) is something that we all do all the time, but often take for granted. I suppose, in that respect, it’s not unlike the other 2 KMs, Big KM and Little KM. There is always (has always been) some kind of KM going around, but until it was brought into the foreground as a distinct topic we did not approach it intentionally. Intentionally, at a gross level, PKM is about the tools that we use and strategies we employ that make it easier for us to identify, locate, and process knowledge.

“Being unconscious about your tool set is unconscionable.” — Tony Karrer

The idea of personal knowledge management was initially related to personal information management. Perhaps some of you recall the the days when those devices, called PIMs, did not have telephones built in! In 2003-2004, Tom Davenport conducted research with the Information Work Productivity Council to look at the current state of knowledge workers with respect to their handling of personal information and knowledge. (See Thinking for a Living for more detail.) Addressing managers of corporations (for whom productivity is a business issue), Davenport summarized the key learnings as:

  • Individuals need to recognize how much of their time and productivity is tied up in PKM (the average user in the survey spent 40% of their time each day using technologies to process work-related information)
  • Companies need to realize that their workers are wasting lots of time trying to manage information and that better personal information management means greater organizational success

However as recently as March 2008, a LexisNexis productivity survey found that “sixty-two percent of professionals report that they spend a lot of time sifting through irrelevant information to find what they need.” What applies to knowledge workers inside corporations applies equally well to the community of independents.

Note that this study just preceded the explosion in the availability of Web 2.0 tools.So we have a lot more tools to manage our information but don’t appear to be much closer to becoming more productive. But productivity isn’t the only benefit of personal KM, especially as our world and our knowledge becomes more social and more fragmented.

I reviewed some of the great work done by colleagues on the topic over the past 5 years, and found some common threads.

Distinguish Skills from Tools

Tools enable us to augment our skills, or (as Steve Barth puts it): “PKM tools help an individual knowledge worker to automate, accelerate, augment, articulate and activate the information and the ideas that he or she works with every day to perform their job.” A critical set of seven skills (catalogued by Paul Dorsey at Milliken and written up by Steve) begins with Accessing Information and Ideas and concludes with Securing Information, and in between describes the skills of organizing, evaluating, analyzing, collaborating around, and conveying information.

So what are KM “tools?”  Paper is still the key tool of preference for many; it supported information work for many centuries before the advent of the computer. But today we think more in terms of desktop productivity and personal content management applications (document processing,spreadsheet applications,  file folders, desktop search, concept mapping tools,  Internet browsers, specialized applications, and so on) and Web 2.0 tools (blogs, wikis, social bookmarks, RSS feeds and filters, microblogging, and so on).

(Tony Karrer’s Tool Set 2009 is a great place to start if you want to think from the purpose outward; that is, don’t start with the tool. This link is also the source of the quotation from Tony, above.)

Tool Selection is a Matter of Personal Preference

Tools are only as good as the skills that exist or evolve to make the best use of them. File folders, for example, are an excellent PKM tool, but people who don’t have experience or training in categorization may not find them very useful. These people (or people who can’t always remember their own classification schemes) may rely exclusively on a good desktop search tool to retrieve content when they want it.

People are not Born Knowing How to Use Tools

This is a phrase I use often when I talk with clients who are fretful about the adoption of their collaboration platforms. Training is not the only answer, of course, but the integration of the tool into the knowledge processes, and adequate time for users to become comfortable with the tool is a big step. (I am probably showing my age here, as I should probably say — in light of Gens Y and Z, that “people were not always born knowing how to use tools.” Sigh.)

The more tools we have ready to hand as we work, the more productive and effective we can be. But all of knowledge workers know that we probably use only a fraction of the features of any one of our favorite tools. One of the best PKM practices I know is to set aside even 10 minutes a day to explore a new tool or a new feature of a tool that you already use.  The payoff  can be huge.

Distinguish the  Private from the Social

Harold Jarche has developed a model for thinking about PKM in terms of the internal knowledge activities (sort, categorize, make explicit, retrieve) and the external activities (connect, exchange, and contribute). He goes on to list which social tools support internal activities vs. external activities; for example he aligns the use of social bookmarks ( and Diigo) as follows:





Making Explicit



(It’s a nicely done piece of work. You should go look at the whole thing.)

This  idea of connecting and exchanging as part of personal knowledge management has been well developed by another colleague who has been writing about PKM for years, Dave Pollard. In his talk at KMWorld last year, he described the shift in knowledge management as:

from content & collection to context & connection

In this sense, all KM (big and little) needs to think about personal KM at the center. On the content side, everyone manages their own content which (in Dave’s words) is “just-in-time and harvestable.” Another key component is to set mechanisms in place for people to connect. Canvassing for expertise is one mechanism — “old fashioned” Listservs are still good for this; expertise location capabilities in social networking platforms represent a slightly new wave — as are processes and mechanisms for telling and sharing stories about experiences and sense-making methods.

The Leader’s Net Work and Personal Net Work

The great shift in the world of KM has been the recognition that knowledge about people and  context can be more important than content knowledge. To ensure that knowledge flows — is created and accessible — across an organization requires work on the part of the organization’s leadership. What I call the leader’s “net work” are those sets of activities that ensure that strong networks will support individuals and ultimately the organization:

  • Network intentionally and practice network stewardship
  • Leverage technology
  • Create the capacity for net work — encourage people to think about “context & connection” and make it easy for them to build their networks (with and without technology)

I will have more to say about “personal net work” at the Boston KM Forum on October 22 (which is all about personal knowledge management). I’ll write about that here as well.

Conclusion: The 3 KMs

Selecting one of the 3 KMs  is not an either/or/or. As in economics and practically everything else, it depends. Different purposes, the target audience, and available resources will guide the approach that is used.  To recap:

  • Big KM is about top-down, structured and organizationally distinct “knowledge management”
  • Little KM is about safe-fail experiments embedded in the organizational structure
  • Personal KM is about access to tools and methods to ensurethat knowledge, context, bits, fragments, thoughts, ideas are harvestable

In this last, the role of the corporation in supporting KM then becomes facilitating personal content management, providing methods (and training) to support information processing, and providing a rich and integrated infrastructure for employees to use the personal content management and the social tools that make sense for each them, their teams, and their communities.

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