Personal Knowledge Management: A Bold Tool

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How much do you know? Do you know what you don’t know and what you need to learn? Do you make learning a habit? If not, I wish you luck: No one likes a fossil, including clients who equate the cutting edge with competence.

But how can you learn in an age of information glut, when the average inbox gets 200 e-mails per day? To be more precise, how can you learn efficiently?

Enter PKM, or personal knowledge management. It’s long been popular with MBA students, corporate bigwigs and others who prize learning as a performance catalyst. And although it might sound arcane, it can help you know more, do more and earn more with ease.

A Little Each Day
Vince Lombardi said winning is a habit. So is learning. No matter what PKM system you choose, you start by doing it daily. True, you still have to pay your bills and buy your groceries. But how can you value learning if you don’t make time for it?

Industry gurus call the learning habit “continuous improvement.” It’s the notion that you should do something each day to improve your output—in quality and quantity, of course, but above all in process. Why? Because how you work can be as important as what you produce.

The System
Speaking of how you work—and how you learn—you’ll need a taxonomy or knowledge map. Taxonomy comes from the Greek words tassein (“to classify”) and nomos (“law” or “science”). It’s merely a way to give abstract concepts such as knowledge a concrete structure.

Say you’re a Web designer. Your taxonomy might start with a major field such as graphic design, which you can split into sub-fields of color theory, layout, typography and the work of famous designers. Next up? Technology, which you’ll parse into HTML, JavaScript, CSS, Perl, PHP, ActionScript (if you plan to use Flash), database tools, such as MySQL, SQL Server and Oracle, and servers, such as Apache and IIS. Software is the third field in your taxonomy. In it, you’ll add Photoshop, Illustrator, Dreamweaver, Flash and WS_FTP. And don’t forget business issues, the fourth field. You’ll need to know how to market yourself, make clients happy, write contracts and more. That’s four fields (graphic design, technology, software and business) with 23 sub-fields—a simple if daunting taxonomy.

The Knowledge Audit

With so much to learn, what matters most? After all, there’s only so much time in the day, and you can’t spend it all with your nose in a book. You need to audit your taxonomy by asking the tough questions: Where is my knowledge deficient? Which skills will build my bottom line, and which are marginal? What’s most urgent? What do I enjoy?

Next, find a source for each sub-field: books, newsletters, listservs, Web sites, a class, a guild or even a mentor. Maybe the knowledge you want is stuck between a friend’s ears. If so, take her to lunch and ply her with questions. Choose the method you like as long as it gives you the best information because there’s a direct link between what you know and what you earn.

The Tool
It also helps to have a tool. Mindjet’s MindManager ( builds mind maps or graphic displays of concepts, plans, projects, theories, models and more. Mind maps start with a main theme in the center of the map, with sub-themes, like sub-fields in your taxonomy, branching out from there. (See Figure 1.)

Think of it as a step toward managing knowledge with the same precision you manage your money, your clients and your business. I promise it’s a step worth taking.

David Garrett is a Web designer and former IT director, as well as the author of “Herding Chickens: Innovative Techniques in Project Management.” He can be reached at

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