PKM chart
Since February 1st, David Gurteen, one of the pioneers and brightest thinkers in the field of Knowledge Management, has been busy, to my delight, reinventing the discipline as Personal Knowledge Management (PKM). As readers of my business posts know, that’s what I’ve been advocating for some time. A group of leading KM luminaries has been discussing this all month on the AOK (Association of KnowledgeWork) discussion group, an online community of practice moderated by Jerry Ash. This has been tremendously helpful in enabling me to flesh out my own vision of how PKM could work, the latest rendition of which is diagrammed above.

It’s not as complicated as it looks, and is best explained by taking you through an example of how it would be used.

When you turn on your laptop, what shows up is your ‘virtual’ office: Your workspace, which looks very much like a desktop, and is piled high with pictures of documents and messages, laid out exactly as you last left them. The Workspace Manipulation Tool features a hand as the cursor, and allows you to move and reorganize documents and messages on your virtual desktop, exactly as you would in physical space. But it also allows you to save any precise configuration of documents and messages, and file it away for later use, giving you a ‘clean’ desktop for another project.

Highlighted on the virtual desktop are the current documents and messages that you last looked at. As it turns out, they consist of a report that you’re researching, a web page that you were half finished reading, and a message that you were composing in reply to the web page. When you use the hand-cursor to ‘open’ these documents again, the Document Annotation Tool opens, and the hand cursor turns into a pencil cursor. The Document Annotation Tool converts each open document into a virtual piece of paper: You no longer have to concern yourself with what application was used to create the document, or what format it is in. You simply use the pencil cursor to highlight, add to, delete from, comment on, and cross-reference to other documents, exactly as you would instinctively use a real pencil to make comparable annotations on real paper. The Document Annotation Tool understands what you are doing and invisibly does the heavy lifting to translate your changes commensurately in the document’s ‘native’ application (MS Word, HTML etc.) You can do all your work with this one, simple application. So you scribble in a table in your unfinished message, make editorial changes to your report, and highlight the relevant parts of the web page you were reading. When you go to Save the highlighted web page, up comes the Workspace Manipulation Tool’s hand cursor to let you virtually place it where you want on your desktop, or virtual filing cabinet. You also use the hand cursor to add the web page author’s contact information into your virtual Address Book.

You’re ready to send & save the now-completed message as well, and when you do so, the Workspace Manipulation Tool automatically opens up your Address Book and the Connector tools, which provide the suggested address and a list of possible alternatives, and the suggested medium (in this case e-mail) and alternative media (IM, VoIP telephony etc.) for connection to the identified recipient(s). As always, before the Workspace Management Tool saves and stores a document or message, it asks you who you will ‘permission’ to access, either by subscription or by just-in-time peer-to-peer browsing, that document or message.

Before you complete the research report, you decide to check the day’s news. Your virtual workspace has an inbox with colour-coded documents that have arrived for you, integrating personal e-mail and sources to which you have subscribed. Using the Workspace Manipulation Tool, you set aside the personal messages and open the RSS newsfeeds you subscribe to. The Document Annotation Tool opens, allowing you to make whatever notations you want, and save or send whatever parts of the annotated newsfeeds you wish to. There are no menus or commands to remember — these Personal Content Management Tools are extensions of your hand, and they have the intelligence to understand your intent from how you move the hand and pencil cursors.

One of the items in your newsfeeds was about something that intrigued you — the collection of shot-glasses from cities and establishments all over the world. You open your address book and create a new ‘tab’ for shot-glass collecting. The Network Builder/Expertise Finder tool automatically opens and asks if you would like to identify and add to your address book others interested in or expert in this subject, and you say no, for now. It then asks if you are interested in subscribing to RSS feeds on the subject, and when you say yes, it provides a list of appropriate subscribable sources, with the cost of subscription if applicable. When you make your selections, the Subscriber tool automatically enters your subscriptions, using the personal identity information aggregated in your Metadata. When you go to place the news item about your new hobby in your virtual filing cabinet, you find there is already a matching tab on this subject set up for you ready.

To complete your research report, you need to get some information on UXGA technology, and on a company called Quarx that manufactures a critical component that uses this technology. Using the Workspace Manipulation Tool you open your address book and open a new tab on these subjects, and the Network Builder/Expertise Finder tool again opens automatically. This time you reply ‘yes’, to a search for experts, and the Super Address Book, which spiders everyone’s permissioned content, as translated by the Metadata tools, to identify, rank and qualify both experts and communities of interest, provides a list, ranked by popularity. It turns out one of the people in the San Diego office of your own organization is something of an expert on the subject, so you click on her name to contact first. The Connector tool provides her Virtual Presence video contact information, her Skype and regular phone number, her e-mail and IM address, and others, but notifies you that she is ‘Out of Office’ for a week. Rather than waiting for her return, you select the last option from the Connector tool, ‘Browse Permissioned Content’, and you are connected peer-to-peer to her machine. You find what you need on UXGA, and while you’re at it you subscribe to her RSS feed on High Resolution Imaging technologies.

SVP mockup

But you still need to find out about Quarx, and your colleague’s content doesn’t help there, so you go back to the list that the Expertise Finder produced and select the Director of Research of Quarx itself from the list. The Connector indicates he is in and available, so the Connector transmits a Conference Request and gets a positive reply. Up pops the Virtual Presence screen, with the smiling face of the Director of Research, as the camera light on your own laptop goes on to confirm he can see you, too. You display a page from your draft report, showing the information you need to complete about Quarx, and the Director replies to most of your questions, but defers on one question citing confidentiality issues. You immediately sidebar an IM message to your boss advising her of this, and are instructed to ask an alternative question, which you do. You get a satisfactory response, thank the Quarx Director, and hang up.


I hope this gives you an idea of how this suite of very simple and intuitive software tools could function in a business environment. What I find exciting about the concept is that not only could it dramatically increase knowledge exchange in business, especially between businesses, and hence improve the effectiveness of nearly everyone in the workplace, but the same suite of tools could have almost identical personal application, finally making all the functionality of the laptop accessible to everyone, even the computer-illiterate. It could allow each of us to connect simply with friends and loved ones, and join and build powerful and enriching communities of interest. And it would free us forever from all the complex tools and formats we now need to learn merely to manage a virtual workspace, annotate virtual documents, and communicate virtually with each other.

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  1. Omar RABHI says:

    Great description for a KM tool i’m searching for. For now we have only small parts of such a tool and i think the major issue with your idea will be compatibility and interoperability. If a commercial company envision to create it, it will be a proprietary solution.

  2. Don Dwiggins says:

    Hi Dave,I’ve only scanned the post, but it looks interesting at that level. You might be interested in the Chandler project (, run by Mitch Kapor of Lotus Agenda fame. They’re in the early stages of developing a “super-PIM”, as an open source project, soliciting inputs from many folks. It’s at the prototyping stage where folks willing to hack Python can download it and try out ideas. I’ll mention your post on the “design” mailing list, but you might want to visit there yourself. In addition to the mailing lists, there’s an active Wiki where you can see the inner workings of the project as well as the product.

  3. Alejandro M. Ramallo says:

    Excellent description! This is exactly what I am expecting from the industry. there is no reason why we could not have this kind of interaction with our computer, since it has been depicted several times in the past (know/remember Apple’s Navigator Video?)Today we have the functionality scattered over many applications…In addition to Mitch Kapor’s Chandler I suggest you take a look at:MIT’s Haystack project,Eastgate Software Tinderbox,and I am trying to find some time to play around with Semantic Web technologies (RDF/OWL) and develop some PKM stuff in this direction

  4. Hash says:

    Your article reminded me of Vannever Bush’s idea of the Memex. And the slow pace at which we moved towards anything like it at first. Fifty years of the filofax. Then, over the last decade, acceleration. The latest Onfolio release candidate comes close to achieving the kind of system you describe, at least in its workspace and research management aspects. And Omea and ContentSaver are worth checking out too. The technology works fine, is heading at speed towards the Memex. I think the real issue is what we do with the technology, how we choose to answer the question that the clever folk at Microsoft stopped asking us around a decade ago.

  5. Russel says:

    Hi Dave.I’ve been a long-time advocate of KM [did PR for Lotus in South Africa] and off the bat I’d say this solution reminds me a little of Lotus’ java-based office suite in terms of customisation. Looking at the long-delayed Vista and Gate’s claims that the new version of Office will be built around user demands do you not beleive that we are finally heading in the direction of an M/Soft P-KM based suite?

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