Education and Personal Development

How to build a personal knowledge management system

By 08/08/2020 One Comment

The key to becoming a better manager is to become a better person – a more knowledgable, caring, decisive, healthy and thoughtful person – at the core of this is the need to learn and discover more. It’s the core underlying premise of Cultivated Management.

Watch the YouTube video here:

Our management will never be more or less than us as a person.

In order to become better though we must learn to be better. Better in whatever aspects of our lives we need to improve. This could be health, communication, management theory, money, dealing with tricky people, focus, mindfulness or anything else we are keen to study and learn.

The best way to continually improve is to learn and that means developing your own personal knowledge management system (PKMS).

We talk about knowledge management a lot in the world of work. We have wiki’s, documents, training, learning, company intranets, brown bag lunches and more. And they often don’t solve the underlying problem of helping people to develop the skills, experience and knowledge to do their jobs better or progress in their careers.

Personal knowledge management systems can also become nothing more than a process that doesn’t lead to the right results. We can gather all of the information in the world but if we don’t put it in to action we’ll never gain knowledge. Knowledge of what works, what doesn’t, how it can be improved or how we can adapt it to work better.

A major advantage all managers should build in their careers (if they wish to remain employable and relevant) is an ability to learn new ideas rapidly and building a good knowledge management system is an effective way of helping to do that.

Note : Throughout this article I reference Apple Notes (my chosen tool). Use whatever tool works for you. I used to use Evernote for this, then I switched to DevonThink, finally settling on Apple Notes.

What is a Personal Knowledge Management System (PKM)?

Let’s start with a wikipedia definition:

“Personal knowledge management (PKM) is a collection of processes that a person uses to gather, classify, store, search, retrieve and share knowledgein their daily activities (Grundspenkis 2007) and the way in which these processes support work activities (Wright 2005). It is a response to the idea that knowledge workers need to be responsible for their own growth and learning (Smedley 2009). It is a bottom-up approach to knowledge management (KM) (Pollard 2008).” Wikipedia

In a nutshell it is a system that a person uses to learn.

Learning doesn’t happen by gathering resources together – it happens by discovering new ideas, blending knowledge together, implementing these new ideas (where possible) and observing and moving forward with what you have learned.

I’ve been a manger for far too many years and the greatest advantage I had in all this time was a focus on building a powerful PKMS. I’ll share it here, but it’s important to point out that this systems works for me, it might not work for you – hence the term “personal” knowledge management.

It took me nearly 5 years to settle on this system and each month I tweak it. I explore new tools and I experiment to see how I can improve it. I’d be really interested in hearing about your PKMS – let me know what you do.

I’m not sure I see much difference between Personal Knowledge Management and Personal Information Management (PIM) so for the purposes of this article feel free to view them as the same thing – at least that is my perspective.

I have four distinct activities to own personal system:

  • Capture
  • Curate
  • Crunch
  • Contribute

1. Capture

At the start of any knowledge management journey is to gather and capture information. You must feed your brain for it to develop new ideas.

Everything I capture ends up in Apple Notes. It is my second brain. All notes go to my standard “All Notes” for curating before being moved to relevant folders.

So what information comes in:

  • At conferences I like to take hand-written notes as I learn more from this process, it’s less frustrating for those around me (less noisy keyboard tapping) and it enhances my learning. I then take a photo of the notes and share to Apple notes app on my phone.
  • If I find an interesting article on the web I can clip it using the Safaris Apple Notes clipper.
  • My Kindle clippings get put in to Notes too.
  • I “share” articles from my iPad straight to notes too.
  • My notes from doodling in the margins of books are photographed or transcribed – and end up in notes.
  • If I find myself out and about and have an idea for a blog, book or other project I’ll add the details via the Apple Notes app, or scribble it down in my notebook (and yes, these end up in Notes too).

Every piece of content I would ever want to consume and learn about ends up in Apple Notes.

Consider though that there is a boat-load of misinformation and nonsense on the Internet. Where you choose to source your knowledge will lead to the quality of your knowledge. I stick to about 5-10 decent blogs, 10-20 interesting people on LinkedIn and the rest of my knowledge tends to come from academic papers, books and serendipity of following interesting articles.

2. Curate

Every week or so I go through my notes and curate them.

Everything ends up in the standard All Notes section in Apple Notes. I then simply process everything that has not been allocated to a folder.

As I curate I’m looking to find a home for each of the notes. My goal is to move the note to the next logical step for learning, or to delete it.

This step in the process is about asking whether I want to “digest” the capture or not. Sometimes I grab things from the web that sound interesting, but on later review aren’t of interest to me.

Some notes are purely for future reference. For example, when researching this article I added a lot of sources of information to Apple Notes and added them to a temporary folder called PKMS. After including the links below I then moved them to a note in Apple Notes called “Basics – PKMS). We’ll come on to this construct in a minute.

Curating content is all about working out the value of each piece of information.

  • Do I still value this piece of information or shall I delete it?
  • Will I need to refer back to it again?
  • Is this a key part of information I should crunch with my existing knowledge to move my learning forward?

And of course some notes are just tasks and ideas. If I want to do something with them I’ll move them my task manager (Todoist).

My goal with curating is to work out where this information needs to go. If it’s for further crunching or I’ve not completely read the source I store them in the “Read It Later” folder.

If I’ve processed it, the raw note goes to a folder called “Commonplace” so I can find it again in the future. But before then I spend time extracting relevant learning points in the crunch phase. And then adding this relevant information to my Core Learning Notes.

Still with me?

3. Crunch

The majority of my notes end up being crunched. This is my term for studying the information and mashing it together with my existing knowledge.

There are a few core subjects I am trying to learn and improve upon.

  1. Communication Skills – I am a lifelong learner of communication and aim to continue to grow my knowledge until I no longer can!
  2. Light Therapy – I am trying to learn as much as possible about light therapy and how light affects humans at work
  3. Management – my bread and butter skill and a topic with a never ending array of principles, ideas and opinions to digest
  4. Writing, marketing and product sales – I am learning about how to market myself, my product and how to sell!
  5. Publishing – I’ve always needed to publish work (books, magazines, zines, photography, podcasting etc) so I’m reading about how others are doing this and learning

Any note that I want to crunch is likely inline with any one of these subjects.

During crunching I take the information source and read it many times looking for nuggets of information, patterns or ideas that compliment or jar with my current thinking.

I used to use mind-maps to store my “knowledge” but they soon became unwieldy – so I now just use an Apple Note to store everything about that subject. I niche it down a little and use a clear note titling structure to organise – as you can see in this image.

A screenshot from Apple Notes showing basic folder structure

A screenshot from Apple Notes showing basic folder structure

 

When I am crunching new information I simply open up the relevant Apple Note and add the new information, change what has shifted in my understanding or remove information I no longer require.

It means it’s easy to find and search, and is all in one place. It’s also accessible from anywhere I have an internet connection.

Most of my notes are plain text or images, but sometimes I’ll spend time writing my notes out on paper and add them as an image, like this one here.

A screenshot showing images of written notes uploaded to Apple Notes

A screenshot showing images of written notes uploaded to Apple Notes

 

When I add information I am asking a few questions:

  1. Does it counter something else I already believe – how and why and what can I learn from that?
  2. Does it compliment existing knowledge?
  3. Is it a new piece of information?
  4. Is it duplicate – in which case should I delete it?

I am crunching the information to see how it sits with my current model of this subject and knowledge.

By using a single place for learning I am able to see connections that may need re-assessing in light of the new information. No model I have of communication, for example, is complete. Each time I learn of some new information means my model must grow, flex or change. By using Apple Notes in this way I can quickly re-assess my understanding and capture the changes.

Crunching is really the learning phase. This is the assimilation of information – it’s about finding a home for it in my mind. Apple Notes is merely a container and model that maps closely to my mind.

I can then quickly refer back to my notes if needed. I have lots of notes and each one tries to split out the topic for easy reference and learning. I rarely call on the notes much though, because I tend to spend time practicing and deeply learning that new idea, topic or way of working. And the best way I’ve found to do this, is to contribute it back to others – to teach and share. Hence step 4.

4. Contribution

My favourite way of learning is to put in practice that which I have learned (if possible). So, for example, let’s say I learn of a new way of organising a meeting that is supposed to lead to deeper insights and richer dialogue. I will find an opportunity to try it and see what happens for myself. This is experimentation – which for me is learning.

I could assimilate this new way of running meetings and teach others how to do it without experimenting – but I don’t know the nuances of when and why it works, or in which environments this new way might not work, or whether this approach even works at all.

To gain these insights requires experience. In gaining the experience I am also teaching others about the techniques during that experience (if it’s a shared experience), learning collectively about whether it works and building my knowledge.

With enough experiments under my belt I feel more comfortable explaining the idea to others, suggesting others use it and I am safe in the knowledge that I’ve learned more about it. Just being able to explain a new idea is great, but explaining how it might not work, or what nuances surround it, is the best way to ensure I have learned it.

It’s not always possible to experiment or try (no time, no safe environments for learning, etc) – that’s not a problem, but I will then seek out more knowledge on that subject to find the opposing ideas or examples of others who have expanded their thinking about the subject through experimentation. My goal is to know the other side of every idea or theory too – it’s rare everyone agrees on ideas – certainly in the world of management and communication. By taking on opposing views I build a richer understanding.

Other factors

Refactor

There is no harm in refactoring, changing or abandoning an idea or theory -in fact, as you grow your knowledge this will happen. The goal is not to collect information for merely repeating it to others – the goal is to grow knowledge and understanding – and teach others. It’s about education, not memorisation.

Full of Dross

If you’ve ever used a company Intranet the chances are you’ll know it’s mostly full of dross. Information, processes, rules, regulations and sources that are out-dated, dubious, pointless, wrong or hard to understand. Most Intranets are full of dross and are best viewed as a corporate tick-boxing exercising. Why? Because they are used to solve the wrong problems.

Intranets are used to document process and rules – not knowledge. Knowledge is best gained by working with people who have the knowledge (hence I try to always put in to practice that which I have learned), yet many companies believe that by simply codifying what can be observed and explained is the same as learning. Hence the Intranets become stale and out-dated as people realise there is a real lack of value in there and people aren’t heavily moderating it to keep it fresh.

The same thing can happen to your own PKM system. It can become full of Dross. This is why it’s important to follow a timely and frequent pruning system. A system where you remove the information that makes no sense or is not useful right now and you only process that which aids your learning. The key is to put it in to practice and not rely on an information repository for your knowledge.

Knowledge is essentially information in action. Don’t be fooled in to thinking collecting information is the same as knowledge – it is not. It can be helpful, but knowing a subject and how it works (or doesn’t) is invaluable.

Be sure to keep pruning, make your learning applicable, experiment and remove the dross.

It is incomplete

There is always more to observe and study than can ever be documented and captured, but the more I’ve gained knowledge the more I’ve appreciated I know very little indeed. Sometimes this is soul destroying, but it’s the nature of personal development.

The more I’ve grown my knowledge the more I’ve realised that everything we do is closely intertwined. For example, our management theory is constrained by our language. The way we act has profound effects on others. The way we speak says a lot about ourselves – and hence how others treat us. The systems we build and improve will determine behaviours. The light in our office is making people sick and weak. It’s all connected. And my knowledge is always incomplete. And just because I have not found evidence of something yet, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist – learning opens my mind – it’s helped me become more tolerant, less opinionated (slightly 🙂 ) and it’s helped me to wonder “why” rather than make assumptions.

But that’s why I need to keep learning – I guess the point is – we’re never done with a subject.

Tools I Use

Here are some of the tools I use for capture, curation, crunching and contributing.

You don’t need loads of tools to make it work for you. I fell in to a trap once of using too many tools and it didn’t work. Simplicity is the key to getting more done and making the process work.

Iterate

The key to a successful PKMS is to keep iterating until it feels right. I doubt you’ll ever get it spot on, but you can get close. Close is good. But as soon as it doesn’t feel right again, try something different.

Having control of your own learning is the best way to succeed as a manager. Managers need to learn their way to success and they need to help others learn their way too. Becoming a life long learner opens doors, helps you solve problems and really can boost your career. And the best way to ensure success as a learner is to have a personal knowledge management system that works for you.

I do hope you enjoyed this post.

Deeper Reading

http://teachinginhighered.com/2016/12/14/updated-personal-knowledge-management-system/

https://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2012/dec/30/maria-popova-brain-pickings-internet

https://nickblackbourn.com/blog/how-to-organize-research-notes/

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/personal-knowledge-management-how-do-25-resources-10-books-garfield/

https://hermesconsulting.wordpress.com/manifesto/storytelling-with-a-purpose/

https://liuyong2net.com/2016/08/16/how-to-build-an-efficient-personal-knowledge-management-system/

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Picture_superiority_effect

https://medium.com/@yongliu/how-to-build-an-efficient-personal-knowledge-management-system-355332ae5991

http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/how-to-study-and-learn-part-one/513

http://rtalbert.org/gtd-for-academics-simple-trusted-system/

Rob

Rob