Thinking Beyond Note Taking With Personal Knowledge Management

By Paul Haluszczak

When computers, intranets, and the internet became mainstays within companies and organizations, they were able to simultaneously increase their collection of knowledge and their potential for productive output. The keyword being potential.

Although access to information was increasingly abundant, ensuring everyone throughout a company or organization had access to the same information was a challenge.

With companies like AT&T and Bank of America employing hundreds of thousands of workers, a system for seamlessly managing this knowledge was a must.

Hence the introduction of Knowledge Management in 1991. The field developed so quickly and attained such high value that In today’s workforce, you will find “knowledge workers” in the same rooms as CEOs, donning titles like Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO).

Of course, knowledge management goes far beyond fancy job titles. To have a deep understanding of the systems and processes you operate within—whether professionally or in everyday life—gives you a leg up.

Professionally, you become a go-to resource in the eyes of your colleagues. As an everyday citizen, you build a sophisticated understanding of the systemic inequities that unjustly move the starting line forward or backward for each of your neighbors.

This begs the question: How does one become a knowledge manager?

The answer is so simple that it might make you fall asleep just thinking about it. Knowledge management starts and ends with note-taking.

We don’t really teach note-taking though. Beyond the simple instruction for learners to write down what they hear from a teacher or highlight text they believe is important, note-taking is mostly related to as a passive task.

It doesn’t (and likely shouldn’t) have to be this way.

Shortly after the field of Knowledge Management was born, people began playing with the idea of “Personal Knowledge Management” (PKM). If advances in technology were making it possible to store more information than seven billion human minds could collectively hold, considering the limited capacity for information storage at the individual level was downright frightening.

PKM is an end-to-end solution that starts with capturing new information and ends with a far more important step—creation. This is where traditional notions of note-taking fall flat. In the context of academics, notes are taken, studied, and hopefully the information is retained long enough to do well on a test. Then, all information is abandoned.

Within a well-organized PKM system, you can let knowledge gather dust for years and in the moment it bears relevance, it can be retrieved and utilized.

Most introductions to PKM will make it feel incredibly inaccessible for adults and young people alike, but if you focus on four simple principles, you can open up a world of possibility.

Curate

Every PKM journey has a curation phase, which is the most adjacent to traditional note-taking. Whenever something of interest passes by, the instruction is to simply curate it.

Saw an interesting article you don’t have time to read? Save it in a “read-it-later” application like Pocket or Instapaper. Had an exciting idea pop in your head while driving, showering, or walking in the park? Write it down on a piece of paper, take a voice memo, or use a native notes app like Apple Notes. Heard a nugget in a podcast you were listening to? Utilize a podcast note-capturing tool like Airr or Snipd.

Organize

It’s not enough to just curate information. You must organize that information in a way that makes sense to your personal endeavors. This is a systems thinking activity.

When computers came into the picture, the analogue hierarchal filing system came with it. Folders and subfolders remained the norm for the organization of digital information. Today, however, there is momentum around network-based thinking, which aims to simulate the networks in our actual brains.

Rather than restricting information to specific categories, network-based organization aims to create more serendipity—illuminating unexpected connections like when bubblewrap went from wallpaper to a protective packing solution.

Reflect and Summarize

The benefits of reflecting on and revisiting information we’ve curated and organized is possibly one of the oldest and well-supported learning methods in existence. Dedicating daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual reflection times keeps things fresh and ensures we remain aligned with our goals.

There are many ways to go about information processing. You can be as sophisticated as Niklas Luhmann and create an advanced Zettelkasten, take a more mainstream approach with progressive summarization, or ease into things and simply dedicate five to ten minutes each day to reflecting on something you intuitively know to be of value at this moment in time.

Either way, the more we process the information we’ve curated, the more likely we are to form unexpected and exciting connections.

Create

We’ve saved the best for last. Information is just information until it is used to create something new in the world. Best of all, we are all creators.

Within an active PKM system, you should never sit down to create anything without 80% of it already finished thanks to the previous three steps. Ever gotten stuck staring at a blank piece of paper? Simply go into your PKM system and you’ll find troves of information that spawn a thousand ideas to write about. If that information isn’t there, you simply aren’t ready to create yet and can move onto something else.

Whatever you are looking to create, whether it’s in written, audio, digital, or analogue format, your PKM system is your preeminent source of inspiration.

Once you get a handle on PKM in your personal and professional life, the connections to how PKM could positively impact your learners will start forming in bunches. For a deeper dive into PKM and the relationship it has to teaching and learning, be sure to check out our webinar, How to Build a Brain: An Introduction to Personal Knowledge Management.