Education and Personal Development

How to build a personal knowledge management system

By 24/11/2017 September 5th, 2019 No Comments
How to build a personal knowledge management system
Since when does absence of evidence equate to evidence of absence?

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.

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’re keen to study and learn.

The best way to continually improve is to learn and that means developing your own personal knowledge management process.

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.

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 years now leading agile teams and growing my own skills in that period. The greatest advantage I had in all this time was a focus on building a powerful PKM system. 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 PKM – feel free to email me with your ideas.

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 sections to own personal system:

  • Capture
  • Curate
  • Crunch
  • Contribute

Personal Knowledge Management System

Each stage uses different tools and processes and is relatively distinct from the others. All are important for my own knowledge management.


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

Everything I capture ends up in Evernote. Evernote is my second brain. All notes go to my standard Inbox folder for curating.

Screenshot of Evernote Inbox

Screenshot of Evernote Inbox

I try to tag all of my notes as they come in but the reality is they get tagged later when curated.

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 using the Evernote app on my phone.
  • If I find an interesting article on the web I can clip it using the Evernote clipper tool that is available for most browsers.
  • My Kindle clippings get put in to Evernote too.
  • I “share” articles from my iPad straight to Evernote too.
  • My notes from doodling in the margins of books are photographed or transcribed – and end up in Evernote.
  • 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 Evernote app, or scribble it down in my notebook (and yes, these end up in Evernote too).
  • I have a number of IFTTT recipes set up to add content from social media to Evernote when I favourite it, or share with a certain tag. IFTTT is very powerful.

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

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 Twitter and the rest of my knowledge tends to come from academic papers, books and serendipity of following interesting articles.

Example book notes from Growing A Business book

Example book notes from Growing A Business book


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

I add tags to each note with relevant topics or learning subjects. Evernote does a great job of keeping the original source URL and it puts appropriate time stamps on each note.

Screenshot showing tags in Evernote

Screenshot showing tags in Evernote

Evernote is also really searchable but I still like to use tags. As I curate I’m looking to find a home for each of the notes. My goal is to move the note to the net logical step for learning.

Some notes are purely for future reference. For example, when researching this article I added a lot of sources of information to Evernote and tagged them. I moved them to a folder called “Read It Later” ready for when I wanted the information.

Whilst writing this article I found all of my research easily and readily.

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? Or 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 these information notes need 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, it goes to a folder called “Commonplace” so I can find it again in the future. I try not to keep everything for ever as Evernote slows down, so I tend to delete articles I’ve got little value from, or have references elsewhere.


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 use mind-maps to store my “knowledge”. I like to take advantage of the picture superiority effect and genuinely believe I learn more by seeing the big picture of the subject. We are all unique though so experiment with how you absorb and assimilate knowledge. I’ve tried to use Evernote to give me this view but it requires a tagging system that excludes general notes and leaves learning/knowledge notes – it’s too complicated for my brain so I stick with mind-maps.

I will open the relevant mind-map, say for example my mind-map about management. It is vast and has lots of sub-maps about the huge number of sub-topics that sit under management – like the example below – time management. I will find the relevant place to add the information and see how it sits with my current view on the subject.

Does it counter something else I already believe – how and why and what can I learn from that? Does it compliment? In which case it’s worth adding it as another resource to call upon to validate that idea. Or is it a new piece of information? Ot is it duplicate – in which case delete it?

Time Management Mindmap

Time Management sub-Mind-map – the communication one is too big to make sense of as an image!

I add new connectors, break connectors or do whatever is needed to weave in that piece of information to my current thinking. I am crunching the information and seeing how it sits with my current model and knowledge bank.

By using a mind-map 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. Mind-maps really help me do this. And the mind-map will never contain my “understanding” of the subject – no tool or model ever will, but it helps as a container of knowledge.

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

For me, I have not truly learned something until I share it or teach it to others. This is my way of deeply knowing a subject and ensuring I also contribute to the wider pool of learning and knowledge in my team, company, family, community or industry.

After crunching a note in Evernote I move the note to a folder called “Commonplace”. It is nothing more than a folder full of every single note I have created and crunched. It’s a reference library. Or I delete it.

I use a technique called Spaced Repetition in which I set a date reminder in Evernote for each note I process, if I keep it. I set the date to be 4 weeks from the date I process the note. I then get reminded about the note on that day. I have already crunched the note, but when I re-read the note I push my learning deeper. I repeat the information and I often accompany this by viewing the mind-map also. When re-reading I may also spot something else I hadn’t seen before, or realise a connection I missed.


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 sides of every ideas or theory too, or stories from others. A holistic approach.

Other factors


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 indigestable. 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 to keep it fresh.

It’s why most corporate learning initiatives are nothing more than a platitude – a tick in a box exercise.

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.

Tell Stories

Telling stories about your learning is crucial too – it’s how we make sense of the information and facts. Facts alone are boring – stories bring them to life. It’s why I enjoy blogging and speaking at conferences – they allow me to take facts and bring them alive for others. In a nutshell, journalism is about taking facts and making them interesting – I like to think of my work in the same way.

Telling stories is great way of sharing your learning. It’s also a chance to formulate and work out what you might be missing. What could be missing from this story? Does this story make sense? How can I improve the story?

For example, my communication workshop is full of highly useful information and facts. Yet it would be boring if I just presented the facts – instead I tell stories. Stories of people, of learning, of activities and of how these facts play out in everyday life. I use stories to create connections and learning opportunities.

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 simply interacting with each other too. 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.

Context in Evernote

Evernote has a fun little tool called Context. What this does, when enabled, is show you related notes. So if I am viewing a note about active listening it will show me notes related to that subject. This serendipity is astonishing. I often uncover notes from years ago that upon re-reading unlock further insights and discoveries. Or I may find a note that got filed incorrectly but opens up a blocker in my mind about a subject. Or I just open a note to re-read to reconfirm my understanding.

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.


The key to a successful PKM system 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 knowledge management system that works for you.

I do hope you enjoyed this post.

Go forth and be successful at work – if you need a little extra boost then maybe my free Personal Branding guide might help.

Deeper Reading