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Personal toolkit: A framework for personal knowledge management tools

This article appears in the issue January 2003 [Volume 12, Issue 1]


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By Steve Barth

The point of this column is to explore personal tools that can automate, accelerate or augment human processes of individual knowledge work without being dependent on the technical or financial resources of a corporate IT department. But it's important not to pursue tools for their own sake if they don't truly improve the efficiency and effectiveness in ways that enhance both individual and collective efforts.

One way to maintain that focus is to evaluate PKM tools in a framework originally developed by Prof. Paul Dorsey at Millikin University in Decatur, IL. Dorsey and his colleagues are looking to bridge the skills gaps between information literacy and critical thinking, both of which are needed by students making the transition from academic studies to professional practice.

Originally, the categories applied to information only, and the Millikin team was dissatisfied with the result. How did the categories relate to the essential-but-invisible function of creating knowledge? But to me, that's the point. I like the Millikin framework precisely because it doesn't confuse the raw material with the final products of knowledge work: decisions, recommendations and actions.

Paul gave me license to adapt the framework as necessary, but more and more I have been appreciating the righteousness of his original analysis. Moreover, I think if you add ideas to each of the following seven categories, the framework becomes very useful not just as a taxonomy for knowledge processes and skills, but for tools, as well.

1. Accessing information and ideas

For most people, a cycle of knowledge work begins with a question at the heart of a problem to be solved. Answering that question is a process of research and learning. Accessing information is about locating, identifying, retrieving and viewing documents and data to discover the knowledge contained therein. Accessing ideas is about learning, inquiring and seeking out experts and other colleagues in the network who can help. Asking becomes a key skill, as does the ability to map and navigate vast landscapes of explicit knowledge.

On the information side, tools for this category would include desktop and network search applications such as SERglobalBrain, Web metasearch applications such as Copernic's Agent, and subscriptions to pushed news feeds and special sources such as DialogBusiness that automatically collect material relevant to a standing question, such as What's happening today in biotechnology?

But on the idea side, critical access tools would also include ways to reach out to those who can help you with your question, no matter where you are or where they are, tapping into their education and experience. Besides the collaboration tools below, consider the importance of wireless e-mail, a mobile phone and a portable, searchable version of your contact list, such as might be contained in a PDA.

2. Evaluating information and ideas

Information technologies such as document management and the Internet have led to a triumph of quantity over quality. But after retrieving information and ideas, both quality and relevance to the question at hand must be evaluated.

Evaluation depends more on skills than on tools, although trust in the tools we use is one of the most important factors. These skills include identifying and validating authoritative sources in terms of bodies of information or individuals. Journalists learn to question motives and verify details with independent confirmation. Competitive intelligence professionals learn to qualify and cultivate their sources in advance. Processing a mass of retrieved material requires judgment and at times even intuition.

However, collaborative filtering and rating services such as Alexa can help to automate the process. Search engines such as Google (google.com) do a first pass when their algorithms rank results by relevance to the query. One way those results are ranked can be by how many other trusted sites link to this one, an impersonal version of the trusted recommendations of peers.

3. Organizing information and ideas

I have to admit to being completely thrown by this category, originally assuming this was about filing electronic documents as carefully as paper should go into manila folders. But it was transformed in my understanding from the most tedious to the most critical principle.

Once material is in hand, information and ideas become actionable knowledge by being internalized and integrated with what we already know and believe, sometimes even dislodging obsolete assumptions. Organizing is vital, because map-making creatures that we are, we need to find patterns, trends and relationships.

This is often a personal process, and we have personal tools we may prefer to use: Some write in journals or diaries or dictate to a voice recorder. Increasingly, those notes can be digitized and indexed to be clustered and displayed with other captured data and information. Making sense of information and ideas is greatly facilitated by search, categorization and indexing technologies that are increasingly available to individual users. Personal portals such as Enfish or Wintility present related information on the same page and mind-mapping tools from vendors such as Mindjet or Ygnius help to visualize how the pieces fit together.

4. Analyzing information and ideas

Calling this category “analysis” misses the point of all of our new ways of looking at both knowledge and work. Because sense-making equally depends on synthesis, hypothesis and even telesis, it is deeply linked to the integrating processes of the organization category above.

As Paul Dorsey noted in his original framework—and others have concurred—this is the most practice-specific category of knowledge work. So the professional skills and tools of one community are largely useless to another. But in most cases, this work is greatly facilitated by advanced uses of basic applications such as spreadsheets, visualization and prototyping software and other products capable of playing what-if games.

Combined with the retrieval capabilities of desktop search tools, summary tools such as Copernic Summarizer can also create on-the-fly abstracts to help deal with large volumes of information, while multiformat viewers such as JASC's Quick View Plus let knowledge workers extract specific material from a multitude of files types without having to open their disparate applications.

5. Conveying information and ideas

Distinguished from the collaboration category in terms of an intentional one-to-one or one-to-many transfer, communicating our knowledge to others is how we establish our value in a knowledge economy, by answering, articulating and, yes, advertising what we know.

This is where most of us live, using the most familiar tools in Microsoft Office and other "productivity" suites that include word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, databases, HTML editors, etc. to explain, present, publish, convince and teach with written words, spoken words—and with what’s left unspoken.

But there are also specialty tools to help package knowledge, such as enhancing charts and presentations with Egisys’ Office Advantage and Harvard Graphics’ Pro Presentations.

6. Collaborating around information and ideas

Nothing about PKM should be taken to imply that knowledge work is solitary, only that the individual needs both skills and tools to bring to the table. So the key collaboration tools by now should be familiar to any KM practitioner: messaging, shared workspaces, discussion and chat apps, expertise locators, etc. Some community-of-practice aids build in functions to maintain the social fabric of the group.

There are also facilitation tools such as brainstorming software and electronic whiteboards, tele- and videoconferencing systems and, of course, water coolers and coffee machines.

Increasingly, the tools for virtual meetings and capturing the content of face-to-face meetings are available to the average individual. NetMeeting (microsoft.com/netmeeting) and Groove, for example, let users share work over the Internet within minutes of downloading free clients.

But more than any other, this category emphasizes how much tools must be subordinated to skills and values. Social, emotional and political competencies cannot be automated and they have much more to do with the success of teams, networks and communities than do the tools.

7. Securing information and ideas

Finally, if knowledge has value, then that value is worth protecting. There are certainly enough tools to control access to digital systems, but today's emphasis on security overemphasizes inoculation from viruses, insulation from hackers and encryption of sensitive communications. More valuable information is given away through lazy disregard for common-sense principles and practices.

Likewise, we rely too much on contractual safeguards to preserve the value of intellectual capital. For individuals, there are ways to share their knowledge without losing credit for it or control over it. For example, Adobe Acrobat allows users to distribute completely formatted, easy-to-read documents with strict controls on whether they can be printed, altered or marked up.

In coming months, this column will look at more PKM tools in these seven categories. Meanwhile, feel free to suggest tools for inclusion or comment on how well the framework fits your knowledge work.

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Steve Barth writes and speaks frequently about KM, e-mail barth.pkm@global-insight.com. For more on personal knowledge management, see his Web site global-insight.com.


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