Knowledge Is Personal – So Why Not Personal Knowledge Management?

I was attending a KM session in NYC a few years ago when Michael Mills (Director of Professional Services & Systems of Davis Polk & Wardwell) was leading a session. He indicated, at that time, that the focus of the firm’s KM efforts was on helping each lawyer manage their own personal knowledge; hence Personal Knowledge Management (PKM). Several of the law firm KM leaders in attendance saw this as heretical — after all, most of the efforts in our KM teams are aimed at helping the firm or groups within the firm (e.g. practice groups) manage knowledge. This knowledge is often tied up in individuals and is not shared and traded across the organization. Let’s call the KM work we do at the group or firm level Organizational Knowledge Management (OKM) so we can explore the distinction.

Is the idea of helping individuals manage their personal knowledge as radical as it sounds? Is it a zero sum game (either PKM or OKM)? Many KM theorists argue that knowledge is personal. When we store knowledge artifacts in various repositories (think precedents, research memos) it is reduced to information or data. When this is retrieved and used by someone else, it is through their interpretation of the artifact that it becomes personal knowledge for that person. So, if we accept the premise that all knowledge is personal then why should we not support the notion of PKM?

Despite this perspective, most organizations focus their efforts on OKM and pay lip service or run scared of PKM. But how can we achieve organizational effectiveness if we don’t first build and support personal effectiveness?

There is an inherent polarity between PKM and OKM that needs to be managed. It is possible that as individuals manage their own information and knowledge artifacts they each take different approaches. For example, they could store things in personal ways; using their own categories and labels (e.g. document names and document types). This is not only possible, but highly likely since we all have our personal views of the world. Because of this, we try and impose frameworks at a group or organizational level. Lawyers often come to these shared repositories reluctantly and make compromises on the organizational structures. But there is one place where this takes shape differently – in Outlook /email. In Outlook, each person organizes their collection of documents and correspondence as they see fit. Perhaps this affordance makes it hard for us to get people to give this up in favour of a shared repository.

PKM requires empowerment of the individual. Team members have more of an impetus to manage their own knowledge development (learning) and need to play an active role in knowledge distribution (sharing or trading) within organizations.

Let us examine what PKM might look like for an individual. We might allow people to set their own learning objectives and manage their own learning and expertise development over time (personal human capital development). Individuals would store and organize information and knowledge artifacts as they see fit (own structural capital frameworks). They would maintain their own social relationships (social networks and social capital). Individuals might also be able to trade their intellectual capital resources (knowledge artifacts) as they see fit and in their own benefit. Most of this is what we fight against as OKM proponents. Indeed, participation in a Firm brings with it tradeoffs, some of which are at the knowledge level. Unbridled personal systems could result in chaos or anarchy.

Could we support both OKM and PKM? Perhaps.

What if we allowed people to personally tag items stored in organizational repositories? This need not be done instead of the frameworks we impose (err… suggest) in the interest of the broader group or community. This could be done in addition to established group level knowledge organizational frameworks. In such a set up, each person may assign his / her own tags to documents and may use these personal tags as a way of finding things. Over time, others may also be able to find documents and other artifacts using these tags.

Personal repositories need not be stored on laptop or desktop hard drives; they could exist in corporate repositories (centralized storage) and exist in virtual or logical form only – not physically. Our corporate collections would then be a super-set of individual collections.

To support PKM, we need to focus on people and their personal needs. A human-centered view of PKM would encourage corresponding analysis. The challenge would be to find and support commonalities and not necessarily the outliers. But be careful here as well. What about the outliers whose view and practices are not mainstream? They may be the innovators who we should try to understand and emulate across the entire Firm.

We also need to give individuals the tools to cope with the ever increasing mounds of information inside and outside of our organizations. Google realized this when they put efforts into their desktop search products and tools such as Picasso (for organizing photos). The (now Microsoft) Groove product allows individuals to manage a collection of documents while synchronizing and sharing these with other team members – inside or outside the firm.

We practice PKM in managing our personal bookmarks – some firms have augmented this with shared bookmark tools. On the web, we have services like that help us manage and share bookmarks and hence the associated knowledge. Again, the goal here is to balance individual needs with larger groups.

In order for a PKM program to be effective, we would still need an OKM perspective. We would have to teach individuals how to make use of the tools and frameworks available to them – and not assume they will learn through osmosis. We could encourage the sharing of best (and next) practices – for example, effective use of search tools and search strategies.

On a personal level, we use PKM to manage our personal libraries and collections (books, articles, files and digital materials). We attend conferences and training session with a view to increasing what and who we know. We spend time with interesting people; learning from them. We explore new technologies and tools thinking of ways to use and apply them.

The challenge to KM practitioners is to find ways to leverage PKM for OKM and teams. Find ways to incorporate the personal into our corporate / firm wide strategies.


  1. Perhaps one of the most valuable aspects of PKM is that, for the particular individual involved, you can quickly achieve an unqualified success.

    OKM is often hijacked by politics within the organization, resulting in either: (a) a massive change management challenge where the lawyers actively resist or ignore OKM efforts, or (b) OKM that represents a compromise in quality due to “folk wisdom” input from powerful players in the organization (e.g., poorly written contract clauses reflecting an influential equity partner’s preferences, even if they’re rife with legalese and make negotiations more difficult).

    None of these problems occur for an individual. The individual, through the support of a KM expert, can quickly adopt a KM template covering the most common contracts the individual creates and negotiates, can set up a simple organizational tree for all research, and can track metrics to document productivity gains.

    Best of all, this kind of PKM can be provide the business case to successfully roll out OKM.