Sunday, November 7, 2010

Feeling uncomfortable with Personal Knowledge Management

Harold Jarche illuminated participants on #PLENK2010 on his ideas of Personal Knowledge Management on Friday. The way he sees it seems to boil down to doing something with information in an effective way: share it and/or action it.  Vlimaka on Cryselina linked some of the readers of the week in an interesting way to what Harold had to say and made the connection between PKM and Knowledge Management in organizations and how the two might compare.

I have some problems with Knowledge Management and even more so with the term Personal Knowledge Management.

1. My first problem is that it gives me the jitters to see that another business term has crept into the social sciences. There have been widespread protests at the use of the word 'capital', to describe the value of our social, human and cultural interactions as human beings in terms such as 'social capital', 'cultural capital' and 'human capital' as it was suggested that in these more is at stake than monetary gain. Do we really have to call the way we organize our personal interactions with others and our creative actions which help us to transform information into knowledge management? Is there not a more inspirational term available? I would say 'enrichment', 'organization' or 'development' would already be better terms, or perhaps 'creation' or even 'control' but perhaps people in PLENK will be able to come up with a better term.

2. To me there also seems to be a tension between the words 'knowledge' and 'management'. In my idea of knowledge there is not much of it that you can manage. It is related to the problems Stephen Downes already saw in 2003 with knowledge management . Knowledge is not the same as information or data, which you can capture and store in systems.

Knowledge in my view is related to the context in which it emerges. Depending on your view of knowledge, it can be constructed, which makes that it is related to the earlier experiences and or knowledge of individuals or others in his or her surroundings. This makes that it would be hard to manage as it would be related to the context in which it is produced over which you don't have control.

It might emerge through a process of immersion, sharing on networks and actions related to information processing, eg. through blogging and receiving from and tweeting information and resources and artifacts on to other people in a connectivist view of knowledge, this makes the management of it even more problematic as knowledge would be embedded in the context in which it emerges, and span a person's mind, the people involved in the interactions and the tools used to carry out the actions and interactions. The only management you would be able to do is to ensure that the conditions to achieve knowledge development are being met, for instance by installing tools on your machine that allow you to  communicate, create artifacts, and push out the artifacts produced onto the Web, but to me these are the least significant in the knowledge creation process.

The only view of knowledge that I can see that would allow for management is the traditional view, where institutions such as universities who produce a high form of knowledge can chop it into bite size chunks, make these into course packages that instructors can pick of the shelf for the students to digest. And even there one would argue in a quality teaching situation, more will happen than the transfer of this managed knowledge; students would be expected to make connections with what they already know and information they find outside the institution, or with information and resources provided by the instructor. And there would be communication to share what is known. Learning outcomes might not quite be what the manager would have intended.

 What then about knowledge management in the workplace? What defines the current knowledge workers job? Here as example a description of 'portfolio' adult educators by Fenwick, that I think is also applicable to other workers today (2003, p.175):

'They are increasingly expected to adapt themselves to conditions of flexible jobs, flexible knowledge and skills and flexible work loctions . . .Within these flexibilised employment arrangements, a career has become an individual's responsibility, a lifelong human resource project crafted through the process of continuous reflexive self-assessment, continuous learning and adaptation and of course self-marketing.'

To me people's career and flexible knowledge once again mean that knowledge in the workplace is again related to the context in which it is generated; the workplace, the knowledge worker him/her self, the professional network. The only instance I can see related to the management of knowledge has to do with the optimization of work by employers, businesses and corporations. What are they to do when a valued worker leaves? How to capture what the worker has learned? Well, I would say they need to allow sufficient time between someone leaving and a new person to be appointed to ensure that work-related knowledge is not lost. There needs to be a process of enculturation and immersion of the new employee in the proximity of the leaving worker, but it seems in the work place of today time is not allowed for this.

So, what do I think of (personal) knowledge management?  No thanks, not for me!


  1. Rita, as one preparing a proposal for doctoral studies, I have written about informal and self-directed work-based learning. Questioning myself, and questioned by others, I have tried to focus on what I am actually trying to address. My current thought/interest is related to the activities of individual employees or contract workers to improve their personal knowledge and abilities for the benefit of themselves, their employers, and their future employers. I recall Dr. Sherry Cooper, a chief economist (, a number of years ago, stating that employees need to think of themselves as Me Inc (incorporated). In other words, don't worry about your employer looking after your future. You should think of yourself as a business and look after your own needs. This has remained with me. If the employer supports and provides recognition for the personal learning, the employer may benefit. If not, the benefit may be to the next employer.

    So, while there may be a better term, I do see where 'personal knowledge management' fits, without it necessarily being related to an organizational practice.

    Tony Ratcliffe

  2. ‘Management’ is perhaps the wrong word. For one thing it implies that all the difficulties and pleasures of assembling a unique set of skills and viewpoints are depersonalized. As if my employer had leased me as a vending machine stocked with a certain skill/product line. That there was no operator behind the mechanism.

    My job and my employer don’t feed any part of me that makes me care to do a good job. I care about how the students see the work I share in producing, the work itself, (until it is trashed by someone higher up) and my coworkers.

    I love what I do, cover all my training myself and keep my spirits and work quality as high as can be. As a flex worker, years of zero job security have taught me to sustain myself in service to those who use what I make. If I ‘managed’ myself the way I’m managed by my manager I’d be useless.

    And yes, it makes me sad that institutions fail to ignite or nurture me. My detachment is a survival suit to keep from being crushed by those who give so little and take up so much space. I'd rather be a happy little Munchkin, really!

    The future of institutions needing ‘knowledge workers’ is to provide an open environment where people can make and mingle their own knowledge treasures and forget the “needs of the organization.” But the organization will always persist because it feeds on its own...

  3. I think KM viewed knowledge primarily as content (documents, videos, mp3s etc. . .) and recognized that it needed to solve the problem of non-content (tacit knowledge), but never was able to do that with any degree of success. As it also became clear that, as content did not transfer to new situations very well, the term knowledge management began to lose favor. Networked learning as discussed in PLENK is a likely successor as it is focused on developing network learning processes in the place of managing content. Although, do you think we understand what is needed at a sufficient level to be successful in this space and do you (or your readers) think it is possible, or that we have the "know how" to do it?

  4. As one who is in the final death throes of a PhD I've found that the real knowledge - the insights, new understandings, hunches - are really difficult to keep track of in such a large endeavour. PKM seems to assume that knowledge comes in chunks which can be aggregated, rather than regularly tearing apart a previous understanding. It doesn't seem to be like that for me. I have stuff everywhere, Delicious, Dropbox, Zotero etc etc, plus an ever-growing series of handwritten notebooks which I use partly for ideas that appear when I'm not connected to the internet,and partly to note where I put things

  5. Hi Scott
    I couldn't had said it better. That is exactly what I tried to say.

  6. Hi Howard

    Yes, the processes are at the heart of the knowledge being generated. It is a fluid engagement dipping in and out of situations, taking in what others say, have produced and written and trying to engage others in this process by producing artifacts ourselves. Stephen and I held the critical literacies course as we could see that we and others might not have the capabilities (yet) to be at our best in this new learning environment. I noticed George wrote a post this weekend about 21st century skills. I find human beings are pretty good at adapting to change and new environments if we are motivated and interested enough in the topic/activity at stake, so yes, I think we are, although we might be lost sometimes, but I think that is where we learn most, in between the tangible outcomes, in the invisible space, if that makes sense to you.

  7. Hi Dialogic

    In a project like that you will have to keep track of your information, ideas and thoughts. I only finished my Ph.D this year and it is all still pretty vivid in my mind: information everywhere, but I used Endnote as a database with key words, a star system for relevance to my topic, quotes and summaries of papers. Also delicious. The thought development; the knowledge and learning , however took place in interactions, heated discussions actually, with my supervisors and through writing papers for conferences and journals, as I was forced to make the connections between all the info. I would be interested to find out more about your thesis.

  8. As I mentioned in my presentation, I am moving away from the term personal knowledge management (PKM) and using “network learning” instead, as I believe it is a more accurate term for online sense-making. "Management" in PKM has always meant managing your own information flows and knowledge, as in managing to make sense. This is more than the aggregation of information.

    As I have written before, "For sure, merely tagging an article does not create knowledge. The process of seeking out information sources, making sense of them through some actions and then sharing with others to confirm or accelerate our knowledge are those activities from which we can build our knowledge. Managing and sharing information, especially through conversations, are fundamental processes for sense-making, as we get inundated with increasing amounts of information."

    For further reading:

  9. Rita,
    Could your clarify your post more? I am confused about why you find personal in KM difficult and not in a personal learning environment. To me what Harold described was very close to what others have called personal learning.

  10. Welsh, I'm curious what you think about the term Management. WIthout the word knowledge before it. It implies that people control one another. Should we chuck it? Ignore it? Get the jitters? Or try to improve on what we've got? Gary Hamel makes a good case for revamping the concept in his The Future of Management.

    As a social scientist with an advanced degree in business, I welcome the entry of business concepts into the social sciences. Cross-fertilization improves the gene pool, so to speak. I'll take Peter Drucker over Talcott Parsons or Emile Durkheim any day.

    By the way, I do not share Scott's and your pessimism. Enlightened organizations will meld the aspirations of their people with the direction the group pursues.

    As for knowledge, I'm with George Siemens. It resides in networks. When one speaks of managing a network, it's not about manipulating what's flowing through it; rather, it's about making connections, freeing up bandwidth, and optimizing pathways. New-age knowledge management, whatever we end up calling it, is a matter of making better connections, not dumbing down and control.

  11. I don't much like the term PKM either For me, PKM works better as Self Managed Learning where the management aspect refers to the setting of "strategic", long term goals for personal learning and development. Learning can then take any form be it formal or informal. The basic idea being that the learner would put themselves in the way of formal, network and serendipitous learning opportunities that support the explicit goals set and agreed upon.

    In the SML workplace application I have been involved with, the interest and motivation of participating co-workers increased. For some groups, co-worker turnover decreased as personal opportunities within the organisation became apparent. One problem was that managers didn't always have time to meet with co-workers to discuss, coach and agree on personal targets.

  12. Hi Chris

    My problem is not with the word 'personal' but with the word 'management' when discussing learning and the environment in which the learning takes place. In my view managing knowledge is problematic as it spans too many contexts and also activity of the mind; it is not tangible enough to manage, by for instance sticking it in boxes or writing it down on shopping lists. Hope this is enough of an explanation, Rita

  13. Hi Jay

    Thanks to the reference. I'll have to buy it. You probably already knew I would like it and its position on management (and bureaucracy!). I am not sure if the current managers would let go and hand over the control to the periphery. Educational institutions show to have problems doing that in learning. I like your remark on enlightened organizations. My experience is that change happens a lot faster if the leadership is behind it. Also that in the current financial climate management does not listen all that well to the workers.