The last time you found something interesting or useful online, what did you do with it? Did you save it to your bookmarks, email it to yourself, or share it on social media?

If you're like most people, chances are you just let the information sit on the web page and then forgot about it. But what if there was a better way to manage your personal knowledge?

Enter the personal knowledge management system.

A personal knowledge management (PKM) system is a tool that helps you collect, organize, and access your personal knowledge. This can be anything from articles you've read, websites you visit often, or ideas you want to remember for later.

In this article, we'll introduce the concept of a personal knowledge management system and show you how to select a PKM system that’s right for you.

What is personal knowledge management?

Personal knowledge management system: model of a person's head and a phone

Knowledge workers are those who apply their formal training and education to develop products and services based on theory and analysis.

Peter Drucker first introduced the term "knowledge worker" in his book “The Landmarks of Tomorrow,” published in 1959. Drucker predicted that the number of knowledge workers would increase dramatically in the coming years, and he was right. Today, knowledge workers make up a significant portion of the workforce in developed countries.

Working with knowledge requires more than simply having access to information. It also requires the ability to find, organize, and use that information effectively. This is where personal knowledge management comes in.

Personal knowledge management is a process used to deliberately and systematically organize our personal information to more effectively find, use, and share it. In other words, it's a system for managing our knowledge so that we can put it to good use.

The PKM process occurs in a cycle of steps in which we:

  1. Gather information from a variety of sources.
  2. Process and simplify complex information, often using personal curation and filtering.
  3. Store the processed data in a personal knowledge base.
  4. Retrieve information from our knowledge base as needed.
  5. Share our curated knowledge with others as appropriate.

This cycle is not linear — it's more like a spiral, with each passing cycle adding new layers of understanding and refinement. In PKM, we constantly learn and evolve as we interact with our personal knowledge base.

What is a personal knowledge management system?

Personal knowledge management system: six books with different colors

A personal knowledge management system is a tool or set of tools used to help us with personal knowledge management. A PKM system allows us to effectively manage our knowledge by providing a structure during the PKM cycle. It's helpful to have a consistent method to remember things by taking notes, tagging resources, setting reminders, and creating to-do lists. An effective PKM system will also help spread knowledge to others by sharing notes, bookmarks, and files.

PKM systems can either be analog or digital, according to your preference. Some people use physical folders and binders to organize their personal knowledge, while others use digital tools such as personal wikis and note-taking apps. No matter what type of system someone uses, the goal is always the same — to help the individual effectively manage their personal knowledge.

What’s the purpose of managing our knowledge?

Gathering and curating knowledge has been around for as long as humans have been able to write. From antiquity, and especially popular in 17th-century Britain, people have collected and organized personal knowledge in commonplace books. These handwritten books served as a way for individuals to curate and store their personal learning, observations, and ideas.

While commonplace books are still used by some today, the rise of the digital age has made personal knowledge management much more manageable — and PKM is more crucial now than ever.

In the digital age, we now have access to more information than we could ever hope to process, let alone remember. Wading through this deluge of data can be overwhelming. PKM can help us sift through the information overload and find the nuggets of knowledge that are truly useful.

It's important to distinguish, however, between information and knowledge. In this noisy digital world, it's too easy to get caught up in information gathering without actually learning anything. Sharing information is easy, but it comes at a cost. There can be serious consequences, like spreading misinformation or simply not having the time to process and understand what we're reading.

With PKM, we can be more selective about the information we take and ensure we have the time and space to process and comprehend it. This can reduce the spread of misinformation and increase our learning potential.

Who can benefit from a personal knowledge management system?

Two different phones illustrating information download and upload

Personal knowledge management is essential in the workplace. It encompasses a significant part of 21st-century skills — the abilities we need to succeed in our careers during the Information Age. These skills include things like critical thinking, problem solving, and collaboration. PKM helps us develop and hone these skills by providing a system to effectively manage our personal knowledge.

Although PKM is often discussed in the context of work, it also applies to education and hobbies. For example, students can use personal knowledge management to keep track of their studies, and teachers can use it to organize their lesson plans. Hobbyists can use it to manage their collections of information.

PKM can also be helpful in our personal lives. In fact, for some, personal knowledge management is more important for personal uses than professional ones, as our personal lives can be much richer sources of information and experiences. We learn a lot from our interactions with family and friends, exploring our world and our interests, and the simple act of living our lives. All of these experiences contribute to our personal knowledge base, and personal knowledge management can help us make sense of it all.

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5 steps to build your first personal knowledge management system

Clothespins in different colors

Making the decision to intentionally manage your personal knowledge is the first step. Once you've started practicing PKM, you'll need to choose a system that works for you. If you're interested in creating your own PKM system, you can do a few things to get started.

1. Analyze your current situation

Consider your current information management and knowledge management process. Do you have a system in place already, or (like most of us) is your personal knowledge and information scattered across various notebooks, applications, and devices?

Make an inventory of your current tools and resources for managing your knowledge. This could include physical tools like binders and notebooks or digital tools like apps, software programs, and online services. What's working and what isn't? Where are the major pain points in your current system?

Maybe your biggest struggle is organizing information, or perhaps you have trouble remembering where you’ve kept the resources you need.

Understanding your current situation is an essential first step in PKM because it will help you identify areas where you can improve.

2. Identify your goals

Once you've analyzed your current situation, it's time to start thinking about your goals for personal knowledge management. What do you hope to accomplish with a personal knowledge management system?

Some common goals for personal knowledge management include:

  • Improving productivity
  • Saving time
  • Reducing stress
  • Learning new things more quickly
  • Staying up-to-date with new information and developments in your field
  • Connecting with other people who share your interests

Whatever your goal, it's important to be specific. PKM can be complex and multi-faceted, so having a clear plan will ensure that your system meets your needs and you don't get overwhelmed.

3. Choose elements to create your system

Yellow notebook on a blue background

Now that you know your goals, it's time to start choosing a personal knowledge management system to help you achieve them. There are many ways to manage personal knowledge, so there's no one "right" way to do it. The most important thing is picking a system that works for you and meets your needs.

If PKM is new to you, try exploring the concept first. Observe how others have implemented PKM in the past, from Niklas Luhmann's early system of Zettelkastens to modern options such as Building a Second Brain.

You can choose to use a specific method already in place, or you can create your own. Many people find that a customized system consisting of a combination of PKM methods and tools works best for them.

Many digital PKM tools are available, ranging from simple applications that only provide basic storage and retrieval functionality to complex systems with multiple features and tools. Some PKM systems are designed for use through the entire PKM cycle, while others are geared toward specific steps such as information gathering, curation, storage, retrieval, or sharing.

A few examples of popular PKM tools are:

  • Evernote for cross-platform notes with email and search functionality
  • OneNote for digital notes and knowledge management tools within the Microsoft Office Suite
  • Bear for speedy and encrypted text-based notes across the Apple ecosystem
  • Roam Research for data-driven note-taking that supports long-term research using networked thinking
  • Obsidian for markdown-based plain text notes that are stored as local files for fast, reliable access

Of course, you don't have to limit yourself to digital tools. You can also use analog methods like the Zettelkasten method or the personal notebook system popularized by Tim Ferriss. If you're just getting started with PKM, you may want to opt for more straightforward options. Some popular tools also have templates to help you get started.

Ultimately, you must decide which tools are right for you based on your goals and lifestyle. As you become more comfortable with the PKM process and your needs change, you can always adjust.

4. Get started

Now that you've selected a PKM system and prepared it, it's time to start using it. Play around with your system to find out how to make it work for you.

Start small with just a few elements of your PKM system. Maybe you focus first on organizing all the bookmarks you've already gathered or saving some of your favorite resources. You might also consider implementing PKM in one area of your life, such as work or school. This will make it less overwhelming and reduce the risk of burnout.

As you use your personal knowledge management system, remember that it's not a static entity. Your PKM system should be an evolving tool that meets your changing needs. As you learn new things and become more comfortable with your system, reflect on your process and make changes as needed.

5. Be persistent and consistent

Personal knowledge management is a powerful tool, but only if you use it consistently. Persistence and consistency are the hardest part of creating (and maintaining) a PKM as it requires a good deal of self-discipline. The benefits of personal knowledge management are cumulative — the more you use your system, the more valuable it will become.

Make it a habit. Set a reminder, include it in your daily workflow, and be persistent. Support yourself with easy tools like plugins and templates, and see how others use their PKM systems on social media.

Just be sure to avoid the temptation of "shiny object syndrome.” Don't get distracted by new tools or methods before you've had a chance to really explore what you have. When you get caught up in the process, it won't be long before you reach the point of diminishing returns, and the amount of effort you're spending on making the process will no longer be worth it.

Organize your way to success with a personal knowledge management system

Personal knowledge management can be complex and multi-faceted, but it doesn't have to be overwhelming. By taking the time to learn and prepare a system that meets your specific needs, you can start reaping the benefits of personal knowledge management with minimal effort.

Just remember — the only way to get the benefits of personal knowledge management is to actually use it. Experiment with different methods and tools until you find a system that works for you, and then stick with it. Over time, you'll develop your own personal knowledge management system to help you effectively manage your lifelong self-learning journey.

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Erin E. Rupp
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Erin E. Rupp

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