my pkm story

It has been over 10 years that I have examined, practiced, and developed models for personal knowledge management/mastery. Here are some reflections on how my thoughts have evolved over that decade.

PKM shifts responsibility

I started down the path of personal knowledge mastery in 2004, inspired by Dave Pollard, Denham Gray, and others.

“To a great extent PKM [personal knowledge management] is about shifting responsibility for learning and knowledge sharing from a company to individuals and this is the greatest challenge for both sides. Companies should recognise that their employees are not “human resources”, but investors who bring their expertise into a company. As any investors they want to participate in decision-making and can easily withdraw if their “return on investment” is not compelling. Creativity, learning or desire to help others cannot be controlled, so knowledge workers need to be intrinsically motivated to deliver quality results. In this case “command and control” management methods are not likely to work.

Taking responsibility for own work and learning is a challenge for knowledge workers as well. Taking these responsibilities requires attitude shift and initiative, as well as developing personal KM knowledge and skills. In a sense personal KM is very entrepreneurial, there are more rewards and more risks in taking responsibility for developing own expertise.” —Lilia Efimova

Early Tools

I identified my blog as the main platform by which I try to make implicit knowledge (e.g. not codified or structured) more explicit, through the process of writing out my thoughts and observations of what I had come across in my work or on the web. In addition, I played with several feed readers (currently InoReader) and a series of social bookmark platforms (Furl, Magnolia, Delicious, Diigo, Feedly).

After two years, I realized that because my website was searchable, I was able to easily retrieve thoughts and comments. This was practical for presentations, papers, proposals, and responding to questions. After just two years, I saw my blog as  a valuable productivity tool, and comments and links from others added even more value.

A KM Replacement

By 2009, I saw PKM as the missing component of most enterprise KM efforts. I noted that the mainstream application of knowledge management, and I would include learning management, over the past decades had got it all wrong. Organizations over-managed information because it was easy to do. Organizations are still enamoured with information technology. However, the ubiquitous information surround of the Web may put a stop to this. As enterprises become more closely tied to the Web, the principle of “small pieces loosely joined”  was beginning to permeate industrial walls. More and more workers were finding their own sources of information and knowledge, outside the organization

My suggestions for organizational KM was as follows [I still would recommend these]:

  • Develop measures that can help experienced knowledge workers capture and make sense of their knowledge.
  • Support the sharing of information and expertise between knowledge workers, on their terms, using personalized knowledge management methods & tools.
  • Keep only essential information, and what is necessary for inexperienced workers, in the organizational knowledge base – keep it simple.

Every Model is Flawed

essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful” —George Box

My first elaborated model consisted of four internal actions (Sort, Categorize, Retrieve, Make Explicit) and three externally focused ones (Connect, Contribute, Exchange).


c. 2009

It was not a great success, because few people could remember it.

There were many other PKM models put forth, in addition to Lilia’s original work. For me, there was little doubt that something like PKM was necessary to keep up in the network era. By late 2009, I described PKM as our part of the learning contract.

It is becoming more difficult to make sense of the world by ourselves. Understanding issues that affect our lives takes significant time and effort, whether it be public education, universal health care, or climate change. Even the selection of a mobile phone plan requires more than mere numeracy and literacy.  We need context to understand complex issues and this can be provided by those we are connected to. The reach and depth of our connections become critical in helping us make sense of our environment and to solve problems. Problem-solving is what most people actually do for a living, so doing it better can have widespread effects. With social learning, everyone contributes to collective knowledge and this in turn can make  organizations and society more effective in dealing with problems.

PKM is an individual, disciplined process by which we make sense of information, observations, and ideas. In the past it may have been keeping a journal, writing letters or having conversations. These are still valid, but with digital media we can add context by categorizing, commenting, or even remixing it. We can also store digital media for easy retrieval. However, PKM is of little value unless the results are shared by connecting to others, and contributing to meaningful conversations. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts as we build on the knowledge of others. As knowledge workers or citizens, PKM is our part of the social learning contract. Without effective PKM at the individual level, social learning has less impact.

By 2010, others were interested in PKM and I taught a one-day course at the University of Toronto. I kept on playing with the model, looking for a metaphor to describe it. Here is how I explained Aggregate > Understand > Connect: in order to enhance serendipity.

  • Aggregate – looking for good sources of information (people) – noting or tagging pieces of information while working collaboratively.
  • Understand – saving information for later – considering how it may be useful in various contexts – making sense of it – finding the right information, at the right time, in the right format,  from the information repositories of our subject matter networks.
  • Connect – ongoing conversations while learning and working including connecting ideas and people.
  • Enhanced Serendipity – PKM increases the chances of serendipitous learning, and as Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favours the prepared mind”. According to Ross Dawson: “You cannot control serendipity. However you can certainly enhance it, act to increase the likelihood of happy and unexpected discoveries and connections. That’s is what many of us do day by day, contributing to others like us by sharing what we find interesting.

However, later that year I had a brief moment of inspiration with Seek > Sense > Share. I knew this worked when a client quoted it back to me a few days after I mentioned it. At that time, I also came up with my working definition of PKM: a set of processes, individually constructed, to help each of us make sense of our world, work more effectively, and contribute to society.

PKM is an enabling process that helps to distribute power and knowledge. Effective knowledge management (KM) really is dependent on effective PKM processes, but standardizing PKM destroys its value.

More recently I have been looking at PKM as it fits into KM. I was inspired by Patti Anklam’s work on Big, Little, and Personal KM, and developed this model:


c. 2013

I further developed this model to show how a simple approach to KM could be applied by reversing the flow from implicit to explicit knowledge. The organization becomes a curator of knowledge as opposed to pushing it to workers.

A simple approach to KM in the organization is to look at it as three interdependent levels. First, PKM must be practiced by all workers. It should focus on implicit knowledge, like anecdotes and observations. The format should be very loose so it stays personal. The key is to allow and support the practice of PKM so that more knowledge will be shared. Forcing PKM does not work. PKM can be facilitated by an enterprise social network like Slack or Yammer, but an ESN often forces a one-size fits all approach if it is the only knowledge-sharing tool available.

The next level is Team KM, which focuses on teams and projects narrating their work to ensure as much common understanding as possible. One critical component of work narration is the capture of how exceptions are handled in order to get this information to anyone who may need it in the future. This does require some type of social sharing platform, and this is where an ESN can be quite useful. It is the group’s responsibility to curate exceptions in a format that is accessible to all. Some exceptions can become rules, leading to the next level of KM.

The simplest level is enterprise, or Org KM, which ensures that important decisions are recorded, codified, and easily available for retrieval. This is mostly explicit knowledge that ensures the organizational memory remains clear on what key decisions were taken and why others were not. Over time, this becomes more valuable. Focusing mainly on decision memories ensures that enterprise KM does not require significant resources but does yield useful results. The ESN can be the source of the flow that later becomes the stock of enterprise KM.

Enterprise social networks can help bridge personal and enterprise knowledge, connecting knowledge flows to knowledge stocks, but there has to be something on each side of that bridge. One critical side is PKM, for this is the source of implicit knowledge, a key to innovation.

Innovating with PKM

Innovation has been described as a combination of observing, questioning, experimenting, and networking. This correlates with Seek > Sense > Share in PKM.


c. 2012

Accepting PKM, as a flowing series of half-baked ideas, can encourage innovation and reduce the feeling that our exposed knowledge has to be ‘executive presentation perfect’. Workplaces that enable the constant narration of work and learning in a trusted space can expose more implicit knowledge. Organizations can foster innovation by accepting that collective understanding is in a state of perpetual Beta. A culture of innovation can be created by changing daily behaviours, which the practice of PKM can do.

Today, PKM is being used in a variety of fields, as organizations transition to the network era. It is being used in national healthcare, corporations, mental health, undergraduate and graduate studies. Perhaps the best impetus for PKM was developing an online workshop with exercises spread over time, as one-day on-site workshops provided too much information for many participants. The PKM in 40 Days format was inspired by my friends at Link2Learn in the Netherlands. It has since evolved to a 60 day format. Public workshops are offered regularly, as well as custom programs, as have been conducted for United Cities & Local Governments and SSAT.

And the PKM story continues. Watch the PKM video presentation from 2017.

9 Responses to “my pkm story”

  1. François Lavallée

    Loved the story.
    Loved the journey.
    Love the process!
    I took the PKM workshop in early 2015….changed my perspective on social network completely!


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