posted 7 Sep 2005 in Volume 9 Issue 1
The rise of personal KM
Seven years before Henry Ford introduced the Ford Model T – the world’s first mass-market car – his entire R&D facility was confined to a cramped 12-by-15-foot, third-floor office room in
Thomas Edison had similar struggles on his road to success. To create the electric light he had to leap four apparently insurmountable technical problems all at the same time: how to create a filament that didn’t melt or burn while still generating light; how to blow the glass containing the filament; how to manufacture both while generating a vacuum inside the glass; and how to create a suitable electricity generator.
Later, a different dimension of knowledge began to assume supreme importance: ‘management’. Peter Drucker, its first great exponent, explained it like this: “Supplying knowledge to find out how existing knowledge can best be applied to produce results is, in effect, what we mean by management.” Add to this a second-order ability to use knowledge to define what new knowledge is needed, and we have a complete picture for what he called ‘Systematic Innovation’. 2
But is it complete? All the different types of knowledge described above have one thing in common. They are organisation-centric. Knowledge management (KM) as we know it revolves around improving organisations’ ability to create, access, store and use rich knowledge (both new and old, tacit and explicit) about the technicalities and processes of efficient, effective supply. As such, it addresses only one side of the equation: It addresses supply, but not demand.
Now, starting a long way off most organisations’ radar screens, the other half of the equation is beginning to emerge as crucial in its own right. Enter the field of personal knowledge management.
Introducing personal knowledge management
Personal knowledge management is the set of tools, skills and services that help individuals improve the acquisition, generation, storage, distribution and use of the knowledge and information they need to make their lives as fulfilling as possible. Today, it’s a tiny, nascent field. But make no mistake. Long term, its influence on knowledge management as a whole will be huge.
Think of it this way. Organisational knowledge management as we know it is the equivalent of Europe before the discovery of
In its richest expression, personal knowledge management encompasses every aspect of knowledge and information people need to address every aspect of their lives. This may include the complexities of personal relationships, including parenting, personal effectiveness and career development, how to maintain and improve personal health and wellbeing, how to make the most of financial assets and cash flows, and more. More prosaically and immediately, it will also span many specialist life departments such as ‘my home’, ‘my transport’, ‘my information and communications’, ‘my hobbies and causes’, including all the knowledge and information necessary to acquire and use all the goods and services needed to achieve personal goals in these areas.
In one sense, personal knowledge management is already a massive industry. Just look at all the self-help books and the vast array of specialist ‘how to’ and enthusiast magazines, for example. But in another sense, it hasn’t even achieved lift-off. When push comes to shove, most people’s current approach to the challenge of personal knowledge management is utterly basic: DIY. There are countless specialist training courses that identify best practices in areas of organisational knowledge such as supply-chain management, law or accountancy. But as individuals, we simply have to find out everything for ourselves, so we are continually reinventing the wheel. The motto of personal knowledge management today is basically: ‘If I only I knew then what I know now’.
But now that’s beginning to change. Just as technologies such as the database and the internet are transforming organisational knowledge management, so they are beginning to transform personal knowledge management too. As the cost of gathering, storing, sorting, codifying, accessing, distributing, and slicing and dicing information continue to plummet, it is becoming commercially viable to address knowledge management as a personal service.
Here are just a few of the services that are likely to develop.
Needs identification and articulation. When entering a new category (eg, ‘golfing holidays in the West Indies’) or life events such as ‘my first home move’ or ‘the death of my spouse’, many individuals don’t even know what they don’t know. Needs-articulation services use the accumulated knowledge of experts in the field to guide individuals through all the things they need to consider and do, including using decision trees to help them clarify personal priorities;
‘Living guides’ are sophisticated guides to problems and markets, from ‘coping with breast cancer’ to identifying ‘the digital camera that’s right for me’, which combine specialist expertise with peer-to-peer support and advice, with database services such as product and price comparisons;
Added-value buying services. AVBs collect and present all the up-to-date, impartial, comparative information about products and services (including peer-to-peer comments) that help individuals navigate their way to the right product at the right price for their particular need.
What all such services have in common, however, is the same set of core knowledge-management challenges. To work effectively they need to:
Gather and ‘understand’ information about the context and circumstances in which the individual is working;
Gather, analyse and use information about the possible and necessary advice, ingredients, tools and processes needed to help the individual realise his desired outcomes within these circumstances (ie, information about ‘supply’);3
Codify, store and enable access to this information as and when necessary.
So far, none of these core challenges have been met. But now that is beginning to change with the emergence of new forms of infrastructure.
The rise of the personal knowledge bank
Personal knowledge banks (PKBs) enable individuals to build up their own personal databases – databases about their own lives and activities that remain under their own personal ownership and control, and which they manage in order to pursue their personal purposes more efficiently and more effectively.
Fully-fledged personal knowledge banks will include a wide range of different types of personal information. These will include personal administrative and demographic data (eg, name, address, occupation, National Insurance numbers and tax references, etc), cumulative transaction and interaction records including a supplier database, behaviour data (eg, ‘my personal music library’), personal preferences and future plans (eg, ‘my next summer holiday’; ‘my home-improvement project’), plus tools to slice, dice, analyse, access and integrate these different data fields.
In the short term, early PKBs will address simple and prosaic needs such as individuals’ growing need to organise and manage the proliferating range of personal data such as diaries, personal address books and telephone numbers now taking a digital form. Another early entry point: individuals’ growing desire and ability to keep an electronic record of ‘conversations’ and interactions that take place via digital channels.4
Customers and citizens are also being encouraged to conduct ever more administrative processes online in ‘self-service’ mode – eg, online banking, filling in tax returns online, receiving bills online, etc. And they are keeping ever more ‘private’ information such as personal music libraries and photo libraries in digital form. In addition, many use packages such as Quicken or Microsoft Money to record personal financial data, downloading transaction-level data from their banks, while clever devices such as personal video recorders keep a digital record of their personal consumption behaviours and usage habits. All this on top of the loyalty card, billing or transaction histories that organisations have already compiled, which, legally speaking, individuals have the right to access.
In short, the more digital data we have – and the more this data is created and held across a range of different devices – the more need we have to store, access, pass on, integrate, cross-reference and combine different bits of information from different sources. Add to that growing concern about privacy, personal digital identity and identity theft, and the demand for various forms of personal information management service is clearly growing.
Using such core information-management services means that we can look forward to increasing sophistication and value derived from better data use. Here are some potential benefits of more sophisticated PKB services.
Solution assembly. To help individuals manage complete ‘life departments’ such as ‘my home’ or ‘my personal finances’ better, any solution assembly would need access to a) all existing transactions and relationships, and b) the individuals personal context and priorities. PKBs provide the necessary information infrastructure for such services;
Facilitation of digital purchases, eg, automatic population of online transaction forms, proof of identity, mechanisms for anonymous purchases via a PKB service provider etc;
Facilitation of digital sales. To sell a car or a house nowadays individuals need to provide prospective buyers with a record of services, repairs and maintenance, etc. The UK government is planning to make it compulsory for house sellers to provide this sort of documentation for buyers. By collecting and storing this data in digital form, personal knowledge banks will facilitate these processes and many more like them;
Personalised recommendations, such as the ‘If you liked this, you might like that’ suggestions already offered by Amazon. Amazon’s recommendations are based only on the customer’s transactions with Amazon. A personal knowledge bank would offer a much richer, rounder data set as a basis for even more finely tuned recommendations;
Better, more appropriate advice. To give ‘best advice’, an independent financial advisor needs a full and accurate overview of his customer’s financial affairs, ideally including all the customer’s financial transactions and relationships. PKBs would ‘naturally’ provide this data, making the provision of expert advice both simpler, cheaper and richer. A spin-off benefit would arise in this and other areas in that the provision of audit trails would be a built-in capability of a PKB – imagine how much easier it would be to un-pick the mis-selling of a financial services product if a good record of the transaction and the circumstances surrounding it were stored in the individual’s PKB;
Personalised and customised products and services. If a supplier is allowed access to an individual’s current category information – say, ‘my current personal computing hardware, software and peripherals’ – that supplier is in a better position to solve problems and construct ‘best next purchase’ suggestions;
Targeted marketing messages. It’s a common complaint among advertisers that they invest too much money communicating to the wrong people. It’s an equally common complaint among consumers that they are always being hassled by advertisers who push irrelevant messages at them. PKB-facilitated targeted messaging could eliminate this mismatch. It would work like this: 1) The individual notifies his PKB service provider of his willingness to receive messages about a particular category/subject during a specified time frame. 2) Those suppliers fitting these criteria are allowed access to certain pre-specified, relevant data fields within the PKB. 3) They then use this data to create tailored, targeted offers that they know are relevant to the consumer in question. As the suppliers know that they are in a competitive pitch for some real business then their ‘best offers’ will be forthcoming. In this way, waste can be turned into value for both sides;
New go-to-market processes. This is a twist on targeted marketing messages. Here, the individual signals his/her intention to buy X or do Y and asks for ‘tenders’ for the business. The benefit for sellers: pre-emption of existing go-to-market mechanisms. For example, if an individual signals his intention to buy a car or holiday some time over the next two to three months, sellers monitoring such signals from PKB service providers can communicate with the individual and perhaps close a transaction before other sellers even know the individual is coming to market;
Market research. PKBs represent a potential gold mine for market researchers looking for correlations between say, product portfolios, consumer demographic and other attributes, and other lifestyle behaviours. Market researchers will have to pay for access to this data (which, remember, can only be accessed with the permission of the individual). But many individuals will be happy to allow such access, especially if it is on an anonymous basis and earns them a little cash on the side;
Improved innovation. Many companies (such as Confetti.co.uk) have already learnt that by encouraging individuals to post messages saying, ‘I’m looking for a product or service that does this, but I can’t find one. Can anybody help?’ they have access to a rich source of ideas for new products and services. PKBs could easily formalise such a process;
Personae management. Not every individual wants to appear the same to every service provider or seller. Individuals have their moods and modes – hard-working saver; fun-loving extravagant holiday maker; concerned parent; fanatical football fan – and may want to present different ‘faces’ (or even anonymous faces) to different people on the world outside. By choosing which data to make available, individuals can use personal knowledge banks to do this.
The new trade in personal information
One way of understanding how PKBs will work is by way of an analogy with a city. In a city there are some spaces such as public parks where you go about your business and remain anonymous. There are other spaces, such as the road where you live, where you are likely to be recognised when you make a public appearance. Inside your office, there is mixture of ‘public’ and ‘private’. Inside your home, you are in a private arena: you only allow other people in if they are invited, and once they do so they are expected to keep to your rules. Finally, there are secure and ‘secret’ places like bank vaults, where sensitive personal information is kept away from prying eyes.
Personal knowledge banks will contain all five levels of data: from data that is required to be public by law (such as census data), to data that is shared with some people (eg, transaction data that is held by both the individual and the supplier), to private data that is the individual’s to disclose.
Also, like a city, PKBs will have their own districts or regions. London has its Chinatown in Soho, Harley Street (for the medical profession), Hatton Gardens (jewellers), the City as a financial district, Leicester Square as an entertainment centre, Oxford Street as a focal point for shopping, and so on. Likewise, personal knowledge banks will have their own ‘districts’ that correspond to individuals’ life ‘departments’ such as health, money, home, leisure, work, transport, communications, and so on.
Exactly how these departments will be connected remains a moot point. A natural starting point, perhaps, is for the emergence of many separate, specialist PKBs focusing on particular personal departments relating to, say, health or personal finance. But there is so much potential overlap – and so much need for communication and connection between them – that single mega-PKBs may emerge. Or else different tiers of PKB may emerge with one level offering common ‘platform’ information and other levels, perhaps operated by separate specialists, adding detailed ‘departmental’ information.
When America was discovered, trade between the two continents transformed life for both sides. Just think of the effect of goods such as the potato and tobacco on life in Europe. Likewise, information trade between individuals and organisations is set to change the way both sides go about their business. The potential benefits of the PKB are huge: they address many of the intrinsic limits and flaws of our current approach to personal data management. For example:
Duplication of effort. Currently, countless organisations invest vast amounts of time, money and effort each building their own bespoke customer databases. Personal knowledge banks point to the creation of a single ‘master’ database for each individual, allowing an end to this massive duplication of effort.
Administrative hassle and cost. Currently, as soon as the organisation collects any data from or about an individual it starts going out of date. People move home, die, get married and so on – and as they do so, the accuracy and value of the organisation’s data decays. Meanwhile, to comply with privacy and data protection regulation, the costs of administering this data continues to rise. As a personal asset, individuals have a strong vested interest to keep their personal knowledge banks up-to-date and accurate. And because they allow organisations access to specified data fields on a permission only basis, they side step most if not all privacy and corporate data protection concerns.
Data poverty. No matter how much information organisations collect about their customers’ interactions and transactions there are two crucial dimensions of information that they cannot access: the individual’s dealings with other organisations; and the individual’s plans, intentions and preferences. Without these two dimensions of information, much of the data they do collect has little value. But this information can only be volunteered by individuals, and they have to have a good reason to do so. The benefits of PKBs provide them with this reason, as well as a means to do so.
There are many other potential benefits for organisations, but the bottom line is clear. Personal knowledge banks open up a new world of opportunity for organisations – the chance to access much richer information, at a lower cost, to drive increased sales, better service, closer relationships and innovation – if they first of all accept new rules of the game: that personal data is a personal asset, which is to be owned and controlled by the individual and used for that individual’s benefit.
Of course, there are many significant obstacles to overcome along the way. Service providers need to make it easy, useful and safe for individuals to store, access, use and share personal data: a huge technical challenge. Individuals need to trust the service provider not to misuse or abuse the information contained by the databank, and to keep to the core purpose of the service (ie, personal ownership, control and benefit). And, creating new business models that earn their keep by helping individuals manage and trade their personal information will be a complex, risky business.
Nevertheless, the benefits to both sides – both individuals and organisations – are so huge that there is little doubt these obstacles will be addressed and overcome.
Knowledge management so far has been an organisation-centric discipline and managers have tended to view every new development and opportunity from within this perspective. For example, marketers have embraced customer databases not as a means to help individuals improve the efficiency and effectiveness with which they organise and run their lives, but as an opportunity to target selling messages more efficiently and more effectively. In other words, they have viewed personal information solely as a corporate, and not a personal, asset.
Christopher Columbus displayed a similar mentality. He went to his grave refusing to accept that he had ‘discovered’ America. The original purpose of his journey was to find a better way to China, and that is what he insisted he had done: found a better way to China.5 Likewise, most organisations assume that more, richer customer data is just a better way to China; just a new means of achieving old organisational objectives. They are sorely mistaken: only by empowering individuals in relation to personal data and, later, knowledge, will organisations be able to build richer, more mutually beneficial interactions and relationships with them.
Personal knowledge banks are the enabling technology and springboard of a new field of personal knowledge management. Both are part of a much bigger trend towards the emergence of buyer-centric or person-centric businesses that earn their keep by helping individuals ‘make’ and manage their lives more efficiently and more effectively.6 Approached in the right way, both will open up a wide range of new and rich win-wins between individuals and organisations.
1. Alisdair Nairn, Engines that Move Markets, Wiley, 2002. p118-121
2. Peter Drucker, Post-capitalist Society, Butterworth-Heinemann, 1993. p38
3. Keriman Ozcan defines personal meaning in terms of any event that is a) partly subjective, rooted in the ideas, concepts, thoughts, beliefs and intentions of the individual; b) partly objective, anchored in the context and consequences of the particular event; and c) partly relational, deriving from the role that particular event plays within a relevant domain of activities. See C.K. Prahalad and Venkat Ramaswamy, The Future of Competition, Harvard Business School Press, 2004. p82
4. For example, Google’s somewhat controversial free email service promises to keep a record of all the e-mails you send and receive up to a limit of 1Gb of memory.
5. That is why we still call his first landing point the West Indies (he believed they were a stepping stone to China), and why early maps of America marked it as ‘Cathay’.
6. For more on this general point see buyercentric.com, the website of the Buyer Centric Commerce Forum.