Sense-making with PKM

Latest version: PKMastery


We may learn on our own but usually not by ourselves. People learn socially. In looking at how we can make sense of the growing and changing knowledge in our respective professional fields, I see two parallel processes that support each other. One is internally focused, as in “How do I learn this?” and the other is external, as in “Who can help me learn this?”.

We constantly go through a process of looking at bits of information and trying to make sense of them by adding to our existing knowledge or testing out new patterns in our sense-making efforts. The Web has given us more ways to connect with others in our learning but many people only see the information overload aspect of our digital society. Effective learning is the difference between surfing the waves or being drowned by them and PKM (personal knowledge management) can be your customized surfboard.

Here is an internal process based on repeating four activities:

Sort Categorize Make Explicit
Observations & Readings Tag, List, File, Classify Write Look-up as/when needed

These can be combined with three external activities:

  1. Connect – with others via various platforms and extend my reach
  2. Exchange – ideas and observations
  3. Contribute – to conversations

Together, these processes look like this:

These internal and external activities are a way of moving from implicit to explicit knowledge by observing, reflecting and then putting tentative thoughts out to our networks.

Looking Inward

One of the important aspects of PKM is triage, or sorting. It’s the ability to separate the important from the useless. Unfortunately, what you may view as useless today could be quite important tomorrow. Developing good triage techniques takes time and practice.

Categorizing: Once we’ve found something of interest or value, we will need to categorize it. The big change with the Web is that we no longer have to put one object in one file folder, as we did with a physical object or even on your computer desktop. Today, everything is miscellaneous. Tags are labels that can be attached to digital knowledge objects and an objects can have many labels. That means that we can have as many categories as we want.

Making Explicit: There are many ways of making knowledge explicit. We can talk about it, write about, engage in debate, create a video or even develop a hypothesis. The act of making it explicit provides the discipline necessary to examine our thought processes.

Going Public: Even more powerful than making our knowledge explicit is to make it public. This can start some interesting conversations about things that matter to us. Going public makes our professional knowledge much more personal. It also encourages peer discussions and reinforces the outward looking aspect of personal knowledge management. Web tools to help us go public include micro-blogging; blogs and podcasts.

Retrieval: The importance of retrieval becomes more obvious with the passing of time. As years of sorting, categorizing and making explicit develop into a large amount of information we can begin to see its value. These are our thoughts and ideas but they are connected to the ideas that sparked them and have been reinforced or questioned by our peers. The great benefit of using digital tools and Web platforms is that we can retrieve our knowledge artifacts (or information that has special meaning to us) anytime and anywhere. That’s quite a powerful professional asset.

Looking Outward

No man is an island entire of himself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main …” – John Donne

Connecting: We need to be reading, watching and listening to find out what is happening in our professional fields. There are flows of conversation around us all the time. For those of us with access to the digital surround we have no excuses not to connect. Finding conflicting viewpoints on a subject is as easy as going to Wikipedia and reading the comments on any controversial subject. The variety and depth of our connections are indicators of how seriously we take our sense-making efforts. Who we know helps to improve what we know.

Exchanging: We exchange and note ideas and information all of the time. In the age of print we lent out or gave away books, magazines and newspapers. We exchanged opinions, sometime without knowing it. An empty restaurant on a Saturday night may have indicated that the locals did not think it was any good.

Conversations help us make meaning. The quality of our conversations is affected by the quality of the company we keep. If we seek out interesting people with different ideas we may learn more and broaden our horizons.

A stock exchange is designed to help capital flow and we need to use knowledge exchanges to allow ideas to flow. For centuries, knowledge exchanges were limited to elites but we now have access to world’s largest and most open exchange ever created.

Contributing. Clay Shirky has brought up the concept of a cognitive surplus that is a result of the leisure time that we gained about fifty years ago. As a society we were in a state of shock and did not have the tools to deal with all of this time, so television filled the void. Shirky says that television collectively takes up about 200 billion hours in the US per year. Wikipedia only needed 10 million hours to get to where it is today as the leading online encyclopedia. We are poised to be able to contribute to more Wikipedia-style efforts but many of use just don’t know how. Our institutions have not prepared us to be ongoing contributors to human knowledge, as we have been led to believe that this is the domain of “experts”.

In a connected world it is getting much easier to contribute, whether it be with words, pictures, music, or actions. Not only that, it may be our social responsibility to be contributors to our common knowledge.

How else will we be recognized as professionals in our fields unless we actively contribute to them?

OS = open source
Aggregator Bloglines

Google Reader







Making Explicit



Micro-blogging Twitter

Jaiku (OS)



Making Explicit



Blogging Blogger


WordPress (OS)

Making Explicit Contributing
Photo-sharing Flickr

Photo Bucket



Making Explicit





Elgg (OS)

Making Explicit Exchanging


What I have found out over several years of using PKM methods and tools is that I have been creating a powerful resource. My annotated bookmarks and my blog are the first places I search when I have an article or report to write. My PKM process has given me a digital library brimming with my own sticky notes that I can easily find.

I also offer workshops on how to develop PKM processes that work in various organizational contexts.

41 Responses to “Sense-making with PKM”

  1. peter evans

    Hi Harold

    just wanted to say, I found this the clearest and most useful description of PKM I’ve come across. I’ve already used it to improve my own PKM system and to help explain a research approach (re: learning & web 2.0) i’m hoping to embark on soon).

  2. Harold Jarche

    Thank you, Pete. I’ve been writing about and practising PKM for several years and I find that writing helps to clarify it for myself, which I guess is the whole point 😉

  3. John Tropea

    Defintely agree. PKM is like sensemaking and everyone does it. But now we can do it in the open, and not only that but we can do it in a connected and networked way.

    aggregated PKM is not the same as social PKM.

    This section of Boyd’s law fits perfectly here:

    “On a work basis, businesses today want it (or think they want it) both ways. They want their employees to be personally productive, making the classic logical error that if everyone is highly productive personally then the company will be. Nope”

    I also blogged about this topic recently:

  4. Gordon Ferrier

    Thinking about the categorisation (sic) step in the set of PKM processes, Mark Bernstein has the idea of “emergent structure” that I find very useful. When collecting bits of information it often isn’t possible to know how best to organise or classify them; that often comes later as you begin to see relationships, connections, linkages that simply weren’t apparent before. And that can be because your own ability or preparedness to sense a particular pattern has changed, not because the connections themselves weren’t implicit before. That idea of looking to form new patterns is a very powerful one, I think, in terms of how PKMs work in practice. It speaks to the need to actively engage in PKM, and therefore makes it more than simply a way of storing and classifying data or information.

  5. Harold Jarche

    If PKM was just a way to store & classify information, it wouldn’t be all that useful. However, practising PKM in a network opens up the possibilities for connections and pattern-making. My experience reflects your advice, Gordon – one must “actively engage in PKM” to realise its value.

    BTW – a variation of this post was used for an article in a US Magazine, hence the spelling 😉


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