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Personal toolkit

By Steve BarthThis is a new column about an often neglected category of knowledge management tools: those designed to help you—an individual knowledge worker—automate, accelerate, augment, articulate and activate the information and the knowledge that you work with every day to perform your job.

As much as I agree with the community-centric approach to enterprise knowledge management, I think it’s clear that KM has to start with the individual and scale up, rather than starting with the whole organization and hope the system’s utility will trickle down to every knowledge worker. Only if systems enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of individual knowledge work can they improve productivity and build value for the organization.

Painful experience has shown that knowledge workers aren’t much interested in contributing KM projects unless they feel they are getting more information, value and assistance out of it than they have to put knowledge, energy and time into it.

By and large, the personal knowledge management (PKM) tools featured here will also be available to individuals without having to rely on the technical or financial resources of the corporation. They are relatively affordable, uncomplicated and should only raise corporate eyebrows if you have to get permission before loading your own software on company machines. Some applications, however, such as 80-20 Software’s Retriever (below), actually market their PKM tools to the corporation precisely because they accelerate your productivity on the job.

Don’t let anyone tell you information productivity doesn’t have a place in KM. When someone asks, “Who do you know at the World Bank who understands Pakistan?” you send them a name, phone number and e-mail address. However, behind those few bits of information is a complicated transaction of social capital. Your reputation is on the line for making the introduction. If the people you are introducing build their own mutually beneficial relationship, it will reflect doubly well on you.

We’ve all heard the proposition that KM is about whom you know more than what you know. But how do you keep track of whom you know? In the old days, finding a World Bank Pakistan contact might have required an hour or two of going through the business card file or a weekend afternoon drilling through old conference notes. The time required limited the number of such favors you could provide. Now however, a few keystrokes in a personal search tool yields names in a matter or seconds. In this case, as it turns out, I don’t have any WB Pakistan experts in my Outlook database. However, on several occasions I wrote or edited stories using such individuals as sources and that is enough of a relationship for a phone call to solicit their cooperation.

It's all information until you put it into context and into action by making introductions, suggestions, recommendations or decisions. Those products are at the heart of knowledge work and are the output of personal knowledge management.

Future columns will each report on a handful of PKM tools. This introduction has taken up most of this first column, so I’ll just focus on a single entry that’s representative of the genre.


Context is one of the hardest things to find in knowledge work. It’s what turns a document from information into explicit knowledge. The closer a document is to you, the more context it has. Otherwise, the signal-to-noise ratio of digital information can be unbearably high. So I suggest that, insofar as knowledge management is about retrieving relevant documents, it’s better to start with your own files and work your way out rather than sifting through dozens, hundreds, thousands or millions of hits on the periphery of the Web.

For that reason, I think that one of the most important categories of PKM tools are those that index the desktop, laptop and network hard drives for rapid search and retrieval using keywords and more sophisticated search strategies.

80-20 Software has released Version 2.6 of its Retriever application (originally named PKP for “personal knowledge portal”), designed to bring some order to the chaos of the document and e-mail mess plaguing anyone who has used a computer for more than a few months. In my case, that’s 16 years worth of documents and about eight years worth of e-mail. Even in cyberspace, I never seem to throw anything away.

After installation, a nice wizard walks you through the configuration process, giving you an opportunity to change the schedule for index updates and specify where the application should—and shouldn’t—look for documents, e-mails, appointments and other files or PIM items. The first index, which found 43,500 files, took only 30 minutes to build. Index updates are much faster.

Retriever integrates with Microsoft Outlook and nests itself into the Outlook Today page, under the sensible assumption that Outlook is going to be open on your desktop anyway. It creates a folder for each person in your contact file, in which all of his or her correspondence is organized.

Queries entered in the search bar bring back documents in a number of file formats. Results can be organized by fields such as author, date or location. However, Retriever’s most impressive feature is an advanced auto-categorization technology called Darwin that extracts concepts from documents and clusters them into folders based on those characteristics. New mail and attachments can be filtered and filed according to predetermined criteria as soon as they arrive.

The new release discards some of the less-functional components of previous versions (a glitch in an early version ended up with a gigabyte-sized index on my laptop). It also adds powerful new functions, such as the Darwin auto-categorizer, although that needs some serious processing power.

My main frustration with Retriever is that is still doesn’t include a viewing utility that let’s you examine the hits without opening them one by one in their various applications.

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

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