Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) — an Update

At last week’s conference, one of my presentations was on PKM. Since I haven’t written about this in awhile I thought I’d bring you up to date on what’s happening in this space, and some of the discussions I have had with others on the subject.

DruckerI first got interested in the idea of bottom-up knowledge management, focused on the unique needs of each front-line employee, in 2003, my last year as Global Director of Knowledge Innovation for a major professional services firm. I’d been asked to investigate a leveling-off of use of the firm’s award-winning centralized knowledge resources, and decided to do the research through personal interviews with non-users, rather than the usual user surveys. We did about 100 interviews, and tried to get at the root causes of the problems and concerns they cited. So for example while many interviewees said they ‘couldn’t find’ what they were looking for, we tried to discover why this was: Was the tool too complex? Was the training inadequate? Was there too much content to wade through? Did they just not know where to look? Was the content badly indexed? Was it in the wrong format for convenient (re-)use? Or perhaps what they sought didn’t exist at all. Or worse, they weren’t motivated to make the effort to look for it.

In describing this work I’ve used three of the interviews that were especially illuminating. One of these was a corporate finance practitioner who confessed he’d completely stopped reading newspapers because ‘general’ knowledge was unnecessary for his work, and used his PC only for e-mail and business valuation spreadsheets. A second was an audit manager who said she couldn’t ‘afford’ the intrafirm charge for research work and simply had no time to do such research herself, so she did without; she also confessed that she’d never been taught how to find stuff on her own PC and could never find what she needed on her own hard drive. A third was a tax partner who delegated all ‘knowledge work’ to subordinates or assistants, even printing out and routing his e-mails. When I asked him about Instant Messaging, he said he ‘handled it the same way’. Ouch!

My conclusion from the interviews was that most of the firm’s front-line people didn’t use the knowledge resources because they didn’t know how. I had been reading about a KM process that entailed one-on-one coaching of front-line people to use knowledge and technology effectively, and named this (for internal selling purposes, and with a tip of the hat to the late Peter Drucker) Personal Productivity Improvement (PPI), since its goal was to address the knowledge-worker productivity problem that Drucker called the greatest challenge of our century. When I proposed PPI as the solution to ineffective knowledge use, however, my boss said he was doubtful that, if they weren’t willing to take the time to attend the firm’s courses or computer-based training on the use of knowledge resources, they were just as unlikely to make time for PPI. He sent me back to find out why practitioners didn’t know how to use the resources effectively.

When I went to conduct the second round of interviews, it became clear that some of the interviewees had given me the answers they thought I wanted to hear because they didn’t know the real answers. They were also blunter and more forthcoming when I went back to suggest that perhaps their ignorance of use of the firm’s knowledge resources was partly their fault. This time, the corporate finance practitioner told me he was paid for his specific technical knowledge, not for his understanding of business issues. He described the powerful, integrated newsfeeds and personalizable news profiles, the paintakingly populated databases, and the collaborative spaces we provided as “nice to have, not need to have”. He was, he said, “unmotivated” to learn more about what we had made available.

The audit manager pulled out an independent consultant’s report that listed in the criteria clients used to select a professional services firm. In order they were (1) strong pre-existing relationship with someone on the team, (2) fit and likability of the pursuit team, (3) senior face time spent with client key decision makers during the pursuit process, (4) technical competency and experience of the pursuit team, (5) understanding of the client’s processes and organization, and (6) understanding of the client’s business and industry. There is just no time, she told me, for stuff that clients don’t think very important. If she had more time, she said, she would be spending it out at clients building relationships, not at her PC looking for knowledge.

And the tax partner grabbed me as I passed near his office, whisked me inside, and told me how delighted he was that, after I’d mentioned it, he’s got his assistant to show him how to use Instant Messaging. “If a client calls me on the phone with a question, sometimes I can IM a staff member and get confirmation of the answer while the client is still online, so I save research time and the client is very impressed”, he told me. “It’s stuff like this IM that really makes you guys valuable, not those giant repositories you build.” If that weren’t distressing enough, he confided that he was concerned that some of those ‘giant repositories’ were accessible to everyone in the firm, and could we pleased restrict access to these to tax practitioners only? He patted me on the back. I sighed.

So my conclusion this time around was that the centralized stuff we spent so much time and money maintaining was simply not very useful to most practitioners. The practitioners I talked to about PPI said they would love to participate in PPI coaching, provided it was focused on the content on their own desktops and hard drives, and not the stuff in the central repositories.

From these interviews and subsequent discussions with leading KM gurus, notably the UK’s David Gurteen, emerged the concept of Personal Knowledge Management (PKM). While we did not coin the term, what we use the term to mean has received considerable uptake in the KM community, and is starting to be used, at least in part and in pilots, in quite a few organization. And some of us have become evangelists for PKM, out of concern that the old model of KM has fallen out of favour, and the term KM has lost its sheen, and a new model is needed if KM is to realize its potential to make all of us more effective in the use of knowledge, technology and learning resources.


The drawing above shows the old KM model and the new PKM model. The old model, which we pursued from 1994-2004, is focused on content and collection — the acquisition, organization & aggregation, storage and dissemination of content under organization-wide taxonomies using customized tools and containers, just-in-case it might be reusable. The new PKM model, which we believe will replace it, is focused on context and connection — connecting to the right people just-in-time, canvassing them to gain their knowledge and advice in the context of a particular business problem or pursuit, synthesizing that knowledge and applying it to the issue at hand. This new model entails three significant shifts in approach:

  • From contributing know-what (‘best practices’ etc.) to harvesting know-how (stories, conversations and other context-rich knowledge)
  • From central content management (centrally administered Intranets and repositories) to personal content management (individuals administering their own knowledge and sharing peer-to-peer), and
  • From enterprise application training (classroom, CBT and newsletters distributed top-down) to personal productivity improvement (observation and one-on-one coaching on effective use of desktop resources)

PKM, therefore, has four components, which can be represented in this equation:

Know-Who Canvassing & Connection +
Know-How Harvesting +
Personal Content Management +
Personal Productivity Improvement =
Personal Knowledge Management

These four components enable the connect, canvass, synthesize, apply, model of PKM. They also reflect the way knowledge has always been shared by most people in most organizations: You walk down the hall or pick up the phone and call the people you think have the knowledge you need, you have a conversation with them to canvass what they know, you pull it all together with the knowledge you already have, and you apply it to the challenge, task or decision at hand. All PKM does is make these steps easier and more effective by facilitating them with some surprisingly simple, low-tech (but high-touch) programs.

Here’s how each of these four components is being implemented by some organizations today, and how they could be implemented in your organization.

Know-Who Canvassing & Connection:

  1. Use social network analysis (mapping or interviewing) to identify the de facto networks of expertise and trust in the organization.
  2. Use these to identify network coordinators, the ‘people to go to first’ on key subject matter areas for your organization.
  3. Have these coordinators create, maintain and publish Canvassing Lists (e-mail groups) with e-mail, IM, phone and other contact information for the people in these subject matter networks, so that anyone in the firm who wants to canvass people in a network can do so with one click. These lists should include experts outside as well as inside the organization.
  4. Create Canvassing Templates, forms that people can fill in quickly and simply to describe what expertise they’re looking for, and then send them to one or more Canvassing Lists.
  5. Devise a simple one-page instruction sheet/FAQ on how to effectively use the Canvassing Lists and Templates, which communication media to use in different circumstances to contact them, and how to deal with telephone tag, non-responses and other situations when canvassing response is inadequate. It should also deal with appropriate etiquette and protocols to ensure the canvassing process isn’t abused.
  6. If you also have a Know-How Harvesting program (see below), consider putting experts’ weblogs and other context-rich resources in the Canvassing List to use as a surrogate for people who are unable or unwilling to respond to canvassing requests personally.

Know-How Harvesting:

  1. Create separate Public and Private ‘My Documents’ and e-mail folders on each employee’s hard drive.
  2. Whenever users ‘save’ or store a document or message, prompt them to decide whether the document should be stored in the Public (shareable) or Private folder.
  3. Establish an automated mechanism like RSS to regularly ‘harvest’ the Public folder information, to a central mirror site that other users can browse, and/or in response to just-in-time canvassing searches (see above), peer-to-peer.
  4. Encourage people in the organization who maintain the most valuable context-rich content (e.g. subject matter experts, network coordinators and newsletter editors) to use a weblog-type tool to post and archive their content as part of their Public folder.

Personal Content Management:

  1. Work with each individual employee to help them organize and index their ‘My Documents’ and e-mail folders in a way that makes sense for them. A standard firm-wide taxonomy is rarely appropriate and with current technology it is no longer necessary. Each person’s files should be set up the way they would set up their personal filing cabinet if the documents were all hard-copy. Rather than by subject-matter, the most effective organization scheme is often by how or when it will be (re-)used.
  2. Deploy Google Desktop or some other fast, simple, powerful desktop search tool.
  3. Use RSS feeds to simplify ‘publishing’ and ‘subscribing’ to others’ content, and show employees how to use them and how to integrate this content into their personal taxonomy.
  4. If you have canvassing and/or harvesting programs (see above) show employees how to use them and how to integrate this content into their personal taxonomy.
  5. Develop and disseminate (with simple one-page instructions or FAQs) routines and practices for effectively capturing, filing and finding relevant knowledge in the context of what it is to be used for.

Personal Productivity Improvement:

  1. Pre-interview each employee in the organization to understand their job, what knowledge and technology they use and how they use it.
  2. Pre-assemble a file of possible ‘leave-behinds’ — ‘cheat sheets’, step-by-step instructions, FAQs, bookmark lists etc. that the employee is likely to find useful, based on your previous PPI sessions with others with similar jobs or learning styles.
  3. If you don’t already have a personal content management program (see above) get this set up for the employee first.
  4. Schedule about an hour face-to-face with the employee. The first half-hour should be spent observing and asking questions of the employee to identify significant productivity problems. The second half-hour should be spent showing the employee more effective ways of doing their work, stepping them through the leave-behinds, answering questions and getting feedback from the employee on the value they feel they have received from the session.
  5. Compile a list of observations and systemic problems that PPI cannot resolve, and present them to senior management for them to address.

While PPI in particular may seem too high-touch to be affordable, just remember that the breakeven point for an investment of two hours of personal coaching for each employee is a mere 0.1% improvement in that employee’s work effectiveness.

Many organizations that have designated network coordinators have instituted some form of simple, streamlined canvassing program, because it eliminates the need for the scourge of ‘blanket’ e-mails sent to everyone. Although they are largely ad hoc, new e-mail technology that accommodates dynamic, subscribable e-mail lists, and e-mail forms and templates, are enabling more robust canvassing programs to be developed. Lend Lease corporation, for example, is using a canvassing tool called ikonnect to do this.

The organization that I know of that is leading the way in knowledge harvesting is Hill & Knowlton. Perhaps surprisingly given their controversial business, they have a culture of openness that encourages all employees to share information about themselves and their projects far beyond what I have seen in most other organizations, and they are using some interesting tools to do so.

Personal content management has received a huge boost from Google Desktop and similar products that have been released in the last few months. But I am not yet aware of any ‘leading practices’ in helping employees of an organization to organize their desktop content and subscriptions in such a way that they don’t have to use broad-brush search tools to find documents and messages on their own PCs.

The professional services firms, such as Ernst & Young and KPMG, are piloting PPI programs. If you know of others, I’d like to hear about them.

PKM is not for every organization. Some companies coming late to KM, or overly enamoured of their legacy KM systems, may not be ready to think of KM as a means of improving productivity, capitalizing on the best available knowledge and experience, tapping the collective wisdom of employees and customers, facilitating more robust collaboration, improving the quality of decisions and enhancing agility and innovation. This takes a relatively enlightened management attitude on KM. Many companies still see KM as a means to reduce cost and headcount, ‘re-use’ intellectual capital and ‘accelerate employee learning’. But as awareness of these new value propositions for KM grows, I think you’re going to hear a lot more about PKM.

And although technology companies, by coopting the term Knowledge Management and making it synonymous with centralized content management, have played a role in tarnishing KM’s image, some technology companies are now developing simple, intuitive tools that will make each of the four components of PKM easier to implement. I’ll talk about some of these tools in a future post.

Top cartoon by the expert in making naive statements funny, Charles Barsotti.

This entry was posted in Working Smarter. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) — an Update

  1. I think that a “leading practice” in PKM would be blogging (internal and/or external). It helps to make the tacit more explicit, and it’s personal:

  2. Piers says:

    What a brilliant post! Love the tax partner story :)

  3. Jon Husband says:

    excellent post … fits well with stories about how no one has 5 minutes to spend learning new applications that will save them (potentially) hours per day. It’s astonishing how we build up habits unconsciously, due to paths of least resistance coupled with habits of great resistance.

  4. Peter says:

    Another interesting post. In my opinion, however, the obstacle to knowledge sharing is in replicating or facilitating effective trust networks. You can’t assume that workers will expose their ignorances to any such system, at least not anonymously. There are two kinds of trust: trust in the knowledge requested, and trust in the confidentiality of the questioner/answerer relationship. There will always be things that, professionally, we should know, but don’t. If you have decent research skills and a well-structured repository of data, you can likely figure it out without sacrificing reputation. Otherwise, I’d look at a system like Experts-Exchange, which works well for tech subjects by awarding/labelling the ‘Experts’ while requiring little of the ‘needy’ or ‘newbie.’ From my perspective, an ideal KM system would be like a vast and dynamic KB, where every conceivable topic has been edited (an is editable) for quick use. This is one reason that wikis work well for KM, organization is de facto as articles. Microsoft has done a fair job with their development community in fostering this sort of KB, using forums, adjunct sites and expert blogs. That raises the other issue of using your experts time for knowledge organization and publishing, rather than work…a hard sell.

  5. I really enjoyed this post. Nancy White sent it to me and asked whether I’d read it, which I hadn’t, I must admit I hadn’t really made time to understand PKM. This is important work because uptake on tools is a big problem and quite frankly people need to see a fast benefit in the first instance and then as the KM provider you build trust and they will give you some more latitude. You mention iConnect from Lend Lease, which I agree is an excellent example of brokering. iConnect is a custom built solution and I think Lend Lease in thinking about reselling it (but I wouldn’t bank on it–not core business). Harold mentioned blogging as part of an PKM approach which reminded me of a paper I wrote on how blogging and rss readers can be used to create new social networks–I think it is a very PKM approach without knowing about PKM specifically. Here’s that paper:

Comments are closed.