What is Personal Knowledge Management — and Why Does It Matter?

Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) is “getting things done through information.” It matters to anyone who wants to make a living from their ideas, master knowledge work, or become a lifetime learner.

Are you an idea entrepreneur?

I got this term from John Butman and his wonderful book — Breaking Out: How to Build Influence in a World of Competing Ideas:

The idea entrepreneur is an individual, usually a content expert and often a maverick, whose main goal is to influence how other people think and behave in relation to their cherished topic.

More specifically, idea entrepreneurs:

  • Play many roles, including writer, speaker, teacher, entertainer, and coach.
  • Create “platforms of expression” — such as speaking, consulting, and publishing—to influence people and make a living.
  • Suggest practical ways to implement their ideas.
  • Create alliances and build networks.
  • Embody their ideas — that is, practice what they preach.

So who are some examples of idea entrepreneurs?

Stephen Covey was one. His big idea was about the habits of highly effective people.

Atul Gawande is another idea entrepreneur. He wrote a book about the life-saving power of checklists, especially for health care professionals.

Eckhart Tolle is an idea entrepreneur as well. The Power of Now brought his big idea to the world.

Daniel Goleman built an idea platform based on emotional intelligence.

In his book, Butman also profiles Cesar Millan, author of Cesar Millan’s Short Guide to a Happy Dog, and  Mireille Guiliano, author of French Women Don’t Get Fat.

Do you have enough content to make a living from your ideas?

Over the years I discovered that many of my clients were idea entrepreneurs as well. And, most of them were interested in writing and publishing books.

This makes a lot of sense. With a book to your credit, you gain clarity and credibility. You also gain content that you can monetize in a variety of ways — as products (books and courses) and as services (consulting and training).

The problem is that writing a book requires material — a lot of material. This is critical, Butman notes, because:

An idea has to be expressed in different ways for people to understand it as fully as possible, and in their individual way. You need to build out your idea with analysis, stories, facts and data, references, and examples.

George Stalk, the strategy expert, has a rule of thumb for accumulation: gather enough material so you can talk about your idea for a full day — and keep your audience interested. The richer the understanding of an idea, the more meaning it will have for people.

The danger of the “bullshit industrial complex”

Can you meet the “one full day” test that John describes here? If so, you probably have enough content to go public with a book and build a career as an idea entrepreneur.

If not, you have a problem.

Too many nonfiction books — especially those in the how-to, self-help, and business genres — suffer from this problem. They’re filled with tips, tricks, anecdotes, and quotes that are cribbed from other sources and mindlessly recycled. It’s the same old stuff that we’ve seen and heard before. And it’s been called the “bullshit industrial complex.”

As an idea entrepreneur, this is exactly what you want to avoid.

The solution — personal knowledge management

In How I Did Research For 3 New York Times Bestselling Authors (In My Spare Time), Ryan Holiday explains how to avoid the bullshit industrial complex:

If you want to be able to make compelling case for something — whether it’s in a book, on a blog, or in a multi-million dollar VC pitch — you need stories that frame your arguments, rich anecdotes to complement tangible examples, and impressive data so you can empirically crush counter arguments.

But good research doesn’t just magically appear. Stories, anecdotes and data have to be found before you can use them.

You have to hunt them down like a shark, chasing the scent of blood across the vast ocean of information.

This is the essence of personal knowledge management (PKM).

Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) — product and process

To understand the term personal knowledge management, remember that we’re talking about a product and a process.

The product is a personal knowledge base — the collection of “stories, anecdotes, and data” that Holiday describes. Your personal knowledge base is an organized, expanding, and up-to-date collection of content that makes a clear and compelling case for your work.

Personal knowledge management is also a process — a name for everything you do to create your personal knowledge base. This process involves specific behaviors:

  • Capturing information from any source that will help you complete projects
  • Capturing any other information that resonates with you
  • Organizing your notes into a single, searchable repository
  • Transforming your notes into original, memorable, and usable ideas
  • Implementing your best ideas

These activities are clearly essential to anyone who wants to make a living and create a career around their cherished ideas. This is one big reason why PKM matters.

PKM as “getting things done through information”

Taking a cue from William Jones’s wonderful book Keeping Found Things Found: The Study and Practice of Personal Information Management, we can also define PKM as “getting things done through information.” (Jones prefers the term personal information management, but we’re really talking about the same thing.)

I like this definition for three reasons.

First, it reminds us that information is a means to an end. If we forget this point, then PKM can lead us down the rabbit hole of endlessly collecting information for its own sake. This fate is described by the Biblical author of Ecclesiastes: “For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”

Second, this definition reminds us that PKM is an antidote to information overload. As Richard Saul Wurman pointed out decades ago in his book Information Anxiety, there is no such thing as “keeping up” with the infinite flow of information. All that matters is following the trail of your own interests and completing the projects that matter to you. These are powerful filters that prevent information overload and make PKM a truly useful activity.

Finally, Jones’s definition reminds us to distinguish knowledge from information. Knowledge is information that you can act on — i.e., use to get things done. Wisdom, in turn, is enduring and universal knowledge — used by many people over time as a guide to behavior.

PKM for everyone

I encourage you to find a definition of PKM that resonates with you even if you’re not an idea entrepreneur. PKM offers many benefits to anyone who wants to get projects done as a knowledge worker and become a lifetime learner.

You can capture these benefits by defining PKM as any of the following:

  • A system for lifelong learning and continuous content creation
  • A system for increasing the quantity and quality of my creative work
  • Using a notes app to learn more and earn more
  • Creating a knowledge base that grows in value over time and increases my career capital
  • Turning my notes from a pile of junk into a gold mine for gaining knowledge and getting things done
  • A reliable system for completing creative projects
  • Transforming information into results
  • Having the right information in the right form and at the right time to complete the task at hand
  • Capturing, organizing, and finding the information I need to meet my goals and fulfill my roles
  • Creating a collection of all the “greatest hits” (best ideas) from my reading, conversations, and personal reflection
  • Collecting ideas on a continuous basis, refining them, and channeling them into a stream of publications, presentations, products, and services

The “three C’s” of personal knowledge management — Continuous Content Creation

There’s one big obstacle to doing PKM effectively: Seeing it as a one-off task — an interruption from your “real” work.

Idea entrepreneurs who believe this end up creating one blog post, one presentation, or one book at a time. They have no over-arching vision, framework, or supporting material for a series of articles, books, and presentations. Their personal knowledge base is skimpy and weak. As a result, they find it hard to accumulate a body of work — one that’s worth sharing with their audience over the full course of their career.

In contrast, some aspiring idea entrepreneurs have the raw material for many articles, books, and presentations. But that material is:

  • Stored in their head and subject to the accidents of short-term memory
  • Scribbled on handwritten notes stashed in forgotten file folders
  • Buried in their computer’s file system, spread across hundreds or thousands of documents created with different apps and incompatible formats

In short, their personal knowledge base exists, but it’s fragmented — decentralized, disorganized, fragile, and essentially invisible.

The solution is to start seeing personal knowledge management — the regular care and feeding of content — as central to your life.

PKM is not a frill or something to put on your “someday-maybe” list.

It’s something that you do every day.