Introduction to Personal Knowledge Management(PKM)

Jul 20, 2022
4 minutes

PKM, or Personal Knowledge Management, is one of the most under-rated skills you can learn. If you get better at PKM, it will improve all areas of your life. You have to keep using and reusing your existing knowledge - the better you are at capturing and reusing knowledge, the better your life will be.

This is especially true if you are a knowledge worker. Their ability to do their jobs will depend on the knowledge they have. Examples of this include programmers, content creators, lawyers, doctors etc.

Even though this is a critical skill, it is criminally neglected by most people. Other than a few instructions to take notes at school, or a marginally useful way to memorise things, we have not been taught about PKM. All the while teaching us useless things like mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. And people wonder why I don’t like formal education.

Before I go further, I want to define PKM so that we are on the same page.

Personal Knowledge Management is a collection of processes to manage the information we learn. At a high level, this can be categorized as…

  • Capturing information
  • Managing captured knowledge
  • Using the knowledge

At a lower level, there are more parts…

  • Finding information
  • Capture/store information
  • Classify, categorize, curate captured information. At this stage information becomes knowledge.
  • Search captured knowledge
  • Retrieve knowledge
  • Communicate/Publish knowledge
  • Use knowledge

In the next few articles(yeah, this is NOT a small topic), I’ll be going into depth for each of these aspects. But before I do that, I want to cover a few things that PKM is NOT about.

Tacit and Explicit Knowledge

There are two types of knowledge - tacit and explicit. Tacit knowledge is, by definition, difficult to articulate. It’s the experiences you have accumulated, it’s the intuitions you have. A good example is how you know how to ride a bicycle. You can do it easily - but there is no way to explain it to someone else and have them pick up the skill. They have to build that knowledge by actually doing it. This type of knowledge cannot be codified. It can be learned only through observation, imitation and practice - not by reading about it.

Explicit knowledge is, thankfully, more explicit. This can be articulated, codified, stored and accessed later. Think of this as written knowledge. This is in the domain of PKM.

Explicit knowledge can be stored in your memory, or in books, or digitally. I’ll be focusing on the digital aspects - but I will go into the other aspects as well. There are many advantages of the digital option over the other methods…

  • Perfect retention - what you store is exactly what you get even if you go through it after decades. Human memory is bad at this. Even worse, there is a chance that you will have a blatantly wrong memory that you are very confident about.
  • Searchability - You can search through your entire knowledge base in seconds as long as you have stored them in a decently built system.
  • Backup and Redundancy
  • Publish - You can publish your knowledge. This will build you credibility. Also, you’ll get other people to look at your content and give feedback - I cannot stress how useful this is.
  • Ubiquity - as long as it’s stored in a standard method, you can access it through your laptop or phone or other available devices. Having access to all your knowledge on demand is a critical feature. Brains are better at this - but retention quality will be worse with brain memory.
  • Collaboration - you can work with other people easily
  • Tooling - you have a huge list of existing workflows, apps, methods that you can adopt.
  • And many more - like support for multiple mediums(text, images, videos), ease of knowledge transfer, etc.

Even after all that, brain memory still has a huge part to play in PKM. Knowledge cannot be personal until it has passed through your brain. PKM does not eliminate the need for thinking. It just makes the thinking more efficient. It’s a thinking aid. PKM tools - be it digital or analog - can aid the process, or even supercharge the process. But ultimately, it’s the brain that has to do the thinking.

Finally, there are books. I hate this system - but that does not disqualify it. There are many people who swear by the effectiveness of using physical mediums as thinking tools - ie. writing in books. I’ll elaborate more on this in a later article.