posted 26 Oct 2007 in Volume 11 Issue 3
Personal knowledge management:
Up close and personal
By Lucy McNulty
With the advent of the digital age came an increased focus on knowledge and the effective management of information. Businesses were forced to adapt to a world in which knowledge had become a vital commodity and economic resources had paled in significance.
In this knowledge-based economy, tools and methodologies were created that enabled organisations to improve their ability to create, access, store and use knowledge (both tacit and explicit, old and new). These knowledge management (KM) initiatives focused on developing systems and best practices at the broad, enterprise-wide level – few considered the value of harnessing the intellectual assets of the individual.
For today’s employees, however, personal knowledge management (PKM) tools are becoming increasingly necessary as they are expected to work more effectively and efficiently, while workloads increase. Managing one’s personal knowledge has become an essential skill. But what exactly is PKM? What are PKM tools? And can they be effectively implemented in the work environment?
“PKM is a very new concept,” says David Gurteen, the founder of Gurteen Knowledge Community. “When organisations first recognised the benefits of installing effective KM systems, they took a centralised corporate approach to KM. No-one talked to the people in the organisation to determine what they wanted from a KM system and what KM issues they needed addressed, and so systems were built that didn’t adequately tackle their problems.”
The majority of employees, therefore, have a limited understanding of the benefits of contributing to these enterprise-wide systems, and as a result, much of the technology is now not being used to full effect. In gearing KM to the individual, as PKM attempts to do, the value of KM becomes much clearer, and crucially, much more personal.
“It is about taking responsibility for what you know, who you know and what they know,” says Gurteen. “It is fundamentally about learning and keeping up with what is going on in the world, because the world is changing, business is changing, technology is changing, the way people are working is changing and without proper management of what and who you know, it can be incredibly difficult to keep up.”
PKM can encompass every aspect of personal knowledge and information people need to address every aspect of their life. It can include the management of financial assets, contacts, connections and relationships, personal and professional goals and individual know-how.
Each of us has an incredible knowledge base, gathered over time from formal and informal learning as well as from relationships and networks, but we rarely use all of it regularly. Effective organisation of this knowledge can encourage greater understanding of what and who we know and, by extension, greater comprehension of where we are lacking in knowledge.
“It is a more self-centred approach,” says Chris Collison, owner of Knowledgeable Limited. “It's about personal productivity, as opposed to corporate or group productivity, with the end result being the improvement of your professional and personal effectiveness.”
It all comes down to “less wheel reinvention”, according to Collison. “I will get better at doing things if I take time to reflect on my personal knowledge and how I can improve it. It’s about learning to do things better and getting the benefits of a broader network of people because through effective PKM you are constantly managing your relationships and your knowledge.”
What are PKM tools?
Management of this knowledge, however, requires a set of tools, skills and services that help individuals improve the acquisition, generation, storage, distribution and use of their knowledge. For some, an innate discipline enables these aspects of PKM to be easily addressed through effective time, workspace and information management, while for others, efficient PKM has only become a viable possibility in the past decade as technological developments in the KM sphere brought about the emergence of a number of PKM tools.
“The so-called ‘social tools’, such as blogs, wikis, instant messaging, podcasts, video conferencing systems and social networking platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn, that have recently emerged can easily be defined as PKM tools,” says Gurteen. “Unlike the large IT systems that characterise enterprise-wide KM, these are smaller, more personal tools that are in the public domain and largely free to use. They put the power of KM back in the hands of the end user.”
The emergence of these social tools forces the individual to externalise knowledge they would previously have, on the whole, attempted to organise internally.
“Nine months ago, I started a blog,” says Collison. “This experience forced me to be more disciplined – not just thinking reflectively about my knowledge and insights, but actually codifying them, capturing them and presenting them in a meaningful way to others. The whole blogging movement and the rise of social media will really stimulate PKM.”
Social media tools have, therefore, given a boost to PKM. They enable the individual to carry out a number of practices at the click of a button, from arranging your personal knowledge for an audience in the blogosphere to effectively managing your relationships through social networking sites and your content through wikis.
“The successful PKM tools are those that are simple, ubiquitous and real-time,” says Dave Pollard, founder of Meeting of Minds. “People do not have the time to pick up new and complicated technology these days – the thoroughly basic tools are therefore the most successful. The telephone, instant messaging and desktop search tools, like Google Desktop, all fit this criteria and that is why they have succeeded as PKM implements.”
Not all PKM software can credit its success on its simplicity, however. “There are some tools that are beginning to emerge that have very interesting possibilities,” says Pollard. “The virtual reality world of Second Life, for example, holds fascinating potential in the PKM field. Already there are 16 universities established in this virtual universe, which offer accredited courses in a number of subject areas. The potential for communicating and sharing knowledge with people across the world, in this virtual space, is huge.”
Such potential has not gone unnoticed. Certain companies, such as the communications technology company Cisco Systems, are in fact in the process of developing virtual offices in which employees can hold meetings and even discuss issues with a colleague over a virtual coffee.
Cisco Systems launched its virtual site or ‘Industry Solution Partner Network’ in September of this year, thereby enabling visitors to wander among virtual product exhibits and company employees to collaborate on new designs in virtual workrooms.
“This technology is just coming of age,” Christian Renaud, the chief architect of Cisco’s networked virtual environments, told the San Jose Mercury News. “It’s at a crossroads. It’s either going to get really big or stay boutique.”
Clearly, executives at Cisco believe the former as the PKM potential of the virtual space in Second Life is also something Cisco Systems is willing to explore – with two campuses in the virtual world offering customers a chance to interact with partners and trainers as well as staff training opportunities. “Second Life allows our customers and employees to interact with each other and Cisco technical and executive staff,” says a spokesperson from the company. “It is our goal to bridge Real Life with Second Life and offer support and services in both.”
Yet, PKM is not all technology driven. Indeed, a number of softer PKM tools exist that are just as effective as the more high-tech tools in encouraging the management of personal knowledge. A good example is the After Action Review (AAR). This is a structured review or de-brief process that analyses what happened in a specific project or business scenario, why it happened, and how things could have been improved, in a forum that includes participants and those responsible for the project or exercise. Originally developed by the US Army, the AAR is now used in many businesses as a knowledge management tool.
“The softer tools such as AARs or project post-mortems are highly beneficial in the PKM context,” says Gurteen. “They give people an opportunity to come face to face to share their tacit knowledge.”
Oracle Corporation, the database management software provider, is one such company to recognise the benefits of the softer PKM tools having run a successful organisation-wide AAR programme since 2005.
“As individuals, we are limited by the fact we know only what we know,” says Ditte Kolbaek, knowledge manager at Oracle. “Our AAR programme gives every individual at Oracle a chance to share what they know with another individual or a group of individuals and through that process learn something new that they would never have considered without the input of others.”
Through the implementation of the AAR programme staff at Oracle are, according to Kolbaek, more motivated to share any knowledge gained through the course of a project or experience and are by extension more capable of enhancing and managing their personal knowledge.
It is clear that a number of technologies and systems exist today that enable us to adopt effective PKM behaviours with ease but why then is PKM not a widespread initiative, practised by all? Why has it only been adopted as part of business strategies across a limited number of organisations?
“A significant legacy investment by many organisations in traditional enterprise-wide knowledge management poses a bit of a barrier to the adoption of new PKM systems,” explains Pollard. “There is also a fear among some executives that gearing information systems to the individual could result in a loss of control and encourage security risks.”
Pollard also indicated that an expectation by many organisations, particularly those in North America, that people will take responsibility for the enhancement of their own personal knowledge, has made companies become less and less wiling to provide individual workers with a PKM infrastructure to take advantage of.
“It’s a naïve expectation,” says Pollard. “People simply don’t have the time to develop their personal knowledge in the workplace without an infrastructure in place.”
Reluctance within organisations to implement more individualised knowledge management systems is not the only thing standing in the way of more widespread adoption of PKM, however.
“The biggest challenge is behavioural,” says Gurteen. “People need to see the value of the tools but at the moment a lot of people don’t – they say they haven’t got the time to follow a PKM system, or they believe that knowledge is power and this competitive mindset prevents them from getting involved in a system which might involve sharing their knowledge.”
With so many obstacles to overcome, one cannot help but wonder if extensive implementation of effective PKM systems, whether at home or in the workplace, is little more than mere fantasy.
“The future of PKM is cloudy,” says Pollard. “That doesn’t necessarily mean it has no future, but its progression is definitely hindered by a number of factors.” So is it possible to overcome these hurdles?
“In order to adopt a PKM strategy, an organisation would need to undergo significant cultural changes,” says Richard Cross, managing partner of MCHGlobal. “The more people get used to the new technology, the easier it will be to adopt. You cannot expect the world to change straight away, it takes time.”
Indeed, a certain investment in time is necessary if a new PKM initiative is to become part of individual’s KM practices or part of the culture of a business. The exact length of time needed is open to debate. According to Pollard, the adoption of effective PKM tools and systems may not be a possibility until the next generation reach working age.
“The next generation will be more comfortable with the necessary PKM tools and systems and therefore they will make more effective use of them,” says Pollard. “They won’t need to make the time to learn how to use them like the current generation needs to, as they will have grown up with the tools they need and be significantly more familiar with them as a result.”
Yet, the implementation of Oracle’s AAR programme took just one year to become a fully integrated part of the organisation’s culture.
“At first, people were too occupied with other things to see the programme as important,” says Kolbaek. “Awareness of the programme within the organisation was enhanced significantly in 2005 after a high level manager called an AAR after a particularly tough acquisition but it was not until I organised a full training programme for AAR facilitators [neutral leaders of AAR meetings] and travelled around Europe and Africa promoting the programme that people in the company really began to realise the importance of AARs.”
No matter how organisations go about encouraging their employees to begin managing and enhancing their personal knowledge the benefits of PKM to the organisation are abundantly clear.
“PKM initiatives adopted in the workplace enable us to spend more time doing the things we are really employed to do as opposed to catching up on the things we have forgotten to do as a result of ineffective management of what and who we know,” says Collison.
A working community with more time to do what they are paid to do could have hugely profitable consequences for the employer.
“If you have got a creative, innovative and fast-working workforce, the chances of becoming a creative and innovative organisation are substantially increased,” says Gurteen.
The personal and enterprise-wide benefits of managing one’s personal knowledge may seem abundant but is there really a future for PKM systems? And will there ever come a time when the widespread adoption of PKM becomes a reality?
“I don’t know whether PKM will be something everyone is receptive to,” says Cross. “After all, in my experience the most creative people have got the messiest desks and some of the brightest people can never remember their mobile number.”
An unwillingness on the part of individuals to alter their usual working methods is a factor Collison also indicates as a possible hindrance to more widespread buy-in to PKM systems in the future.
“I think future changes in PKM will be stimulated by technology,” says Collison. “But I believe these technological developments will only have an effect where they fall on fertile ground. For the people who are just not enthusiastic about PKM, they will have very little effect.”
Nonetheless, Collison admits PKM is not a concept that is going to disappear any time soon. “I don’t think we’ve seen the end of PKM by any means,” says Collison. “A convergence of hand-held devices and an ever-pervasive wi-fi access will, I think, affect our ability to access information and knowledge in the future and by extension our ability to manage it.”
Gurteen too, predicts a “slowly but surely” future for PKM. “In the last seven years, PKM has gathered a lot more pace,” he says. “Following the popularity of social tools, organisations and people are talking considerably more about personal collaboration tools and the benefits of continuous learning systems and effective knowledge management. PKM tools are here to stay it is just a question of whether or not organisations and individual will choose to adopt the technological or non-technological systems.”
PKM is clearly a concept that is not going to be forgotten easily, indeed for good reason as Kolbaek indicates. “Everything in the working world is susceptible to change, from the organisations to the products or the marketplace,” she says. “If you don’t make the time to enhance or manage your personal knowledge in order to keep on top of these changes, it is hard to imagine how you could possibly maintain your job.”