A Personal Knowledge Management System - a 4 step process to build an awesome system

A Personal Knowledge Management System - a 4 step process to build an awesome system

In this post I will share my Personal Knowledge Management System (PKMS). At the heart of becoming a Cultivated Manager is learning. You’ll see that learning, communication and creativity run through pretty much every post and video.

Watch the YouTube video here: Or listen to the Cultivated Podcast, or read on below.

Our management will never be more or less than us as a person.

In order to become better though we must learn to be better. Better in whatever aspects of our lives we need to improve. This could be health, communication, management theory, money, dealing with tricky people, focus, mindfulness or anything else we are keen to study and learn.

The best way to continually improve is to learn and that means developing your own personal knowledge management system.

We talk about knowledge management a lot in the world of work. We have wiki’s, documents, training, learning, company intranets, brown bag lunches and more. And they often don’t solve the underlying problem of helping people to develop the skills, experience and knowledge to do their jobs better or progress in their careers.

Personal knowledge management systems can also become nothing more than a process that doesn’t lead to the right results. We can gather all of the information in the world but if we don’t put it in to action we’ll never gain knowledge. Knowledge of what works, what doesn’t, how it can be improved or how we can adapt it to work better.

A major advantage all managers should build in their careers (if they wish to remain employable and relevant) is an ability to learn new ideas rapidly and building a good knowledge management system is an effective way of helping to do that.

What is a Personal Knowledge Management System (PKM)?

Let’s start with a wikipedia definition:

“Personal knowledge management (PKM) is a collection of processes that a person uses to gather, classify, store, search, retrieve and share knowledgein their daily activities (Grundspenkis 2007) and the way in which these processes support work activities (Wright 2005). It is a response to the idea that knowledge workers need to be responsible for their own growth and learning (Smedley 2009). It is a bottom-up approach to knowledge management (KM) (Pollard 2008).” Wikipedia

In a nutshell it is a system that a person uses to learn.

Learning doesn’t happen by gathering resources together – it happens by discovering new ideas, blending knowledge together, implementing these new ideas (where possible) and observing and moving forward with what you have learned.

I’ve been a manger for far too many years and the greatest advantage I had in all this time was a focus on building a powerful personal knowledge management system. I’ll share it here, but it’s important to point out that this systems works for me, it might not work for you – hence the term “personal” knowledge management.

It took me nearly 5 years to settle on this system and each month I tweak it. I explore new tools and I experiment to see how I can improve it. I’d be really interested in hearing about your personal knowledge management system – let me know what you do.

I’m not sure I see much difference between Personal Knowledge Management and Personal Information Management (PIM) so for the purposes of this article feel free to view them as the same thing – at least that is my perspective.

I have four distinct activities to own personal system:

  1. Capture – discover something, find something, read something
  2. Curate – do I still want to process this? Is it still helpful? Where should I store it?
  3. Crunch – turn information into action to create knowledge. Assimilate this knowledge into my very behaviours
  4. Contribute – co-learn through something, or simply contribute something that may help others.

. Capture

At the start of any personal knowledge management journey is the first step; gather and capture information. You must feed your brain to gain knowledge.

Knowledge can only be gained by studying. And there are many ways to study.

Check out this other post on the two main ways to gain personal knowledge.

Everything I capture ends up in Nimbus Notes (Article here about how I use Nimbus Notes). It is my second brain. All notes go to my standard “Inbox” for curating before being moved to relevant spaces and/or folders.

So what information comes in:

  • Hand-written conference notes.
    • I learn moreby writing notes long hand (I’ve done videos and articles on good note taking and how I use the Cornell Note Taking method)
    • Hand writing notes is less frustrating for those around me (less noisy keyboard tapping) and it also enhances my learning.
    • I then take a photo of the notes and share to Nimbus Note app on my phone.
  • Interesting articles from the web – captured using the browser note clipper for Nimbus Note.
  • Kindle clippings get put in Nimbus Note too.
  • I “share” articles from my iPad straight to Nimbus Note too.
  • My notes from doodling in the margins of books are photographed or transcribed – and end up in Nimbus Note.
  • If I find myself out and about and I have an idea for a blog, book or other project, I’ll add the details via the Nimbus Note app, or scribble it down in my notebook (and yes, these end up in Nimbus too).

Every piece of content I would ever want to consume and learn about, ends up in Nimbus Notes.

Consider though that there is a boat-load of misinformation and nonsense on the Internet. Where you choose your information will lead to the quality of your knowledge. I stick to about 5-10 decent blogs and the rest of my information come from academic papers, books and serendipity of following interesting articles. And note that I use the word information there on purpose. It is not knowledge until I have put that information into action.

2. Curate

Every week or so I go through my notes and curate them.

Everything ends up in the standard Inbox in Nimbus Notes. I then simply process everything.

As I curate I’m looking to find a home for each of the notes. My goal is to move the note to the next logical step for learning, or to delete it, or simply store it for future reference in my commonplace book.

This step in the process is about asking whether I want to “digest” the captured information or not. Sometimes I grab things from the web that sound interesting, but on later review aren’t of interest to me.

Some notes are purely for future reference. For example, when researching this article I added a lot of sources of information to Nimbus Note and added them to a temporary folder called PKMS. After including the links below I then moved them to a folder in Nimbus Notes called “Basics – personal knowledge management”. We’ll come on to this construct in a minute.

Curating content is all about working out the value of each piece of information.
  • Do I still value this piece of information or shall I delete it?
  • Will I need to refer back to it again?
  • Should I crunch this information with my existing knowledge to help me get smarter, or delete it?

And of course some notes are just tasks and ideas. If I want to do something with them I’ll move them my task manager (Todoist).

The curation step is all about filtering the information for the next step(s).

3. Crunch

The majority of my notes end up being crunched. This is my term for studying the information and mashing it together with my existing knowledge – and then, later, putting it into action.

There are a few core subjects I am trying to learn and improve upon.

  1. Communication Skills – I am a lifelong learner of communication and aim to continue to grow my knowledge until I no longer can!
  2. Light Therapy – I am trying to learn as much as possible about light therapy and how light affects humans at work
  3. Management – my bread and butter skill and a topic with a never ending array of principles, ideas and opinions to digest
  4. Writing, marketing and product sales – I am learning about how to market myself, my product and how to sell!
  5. Publishing – I’ve always needed to publish work (books, magazines, zines, photography, podcasting etc) so I’m reading about how others are doing this and learning

Any note that I want to crunch is likely inline with any one of these subjects.

During crunching I take the information source and read it many times looking for nuggets of information, patterns or ideas that compliment or jar with my current knowledge.

I used to use mind-maps to store this information, but they soon became unwieldy – so I now just use a Nimbus Note to store everything about that subject. I niche it down a little and use a clear note titling structure and tags to organise. More on the system here.

When I am crunching new information I simply open up the relevant Nimbus Note and add the new information, change what has shifted in my understanding or remove information I no longer require.

It means it’s easy to find and search a particular topic, and is all in one place – ideally all in one note, and accessible from anywhere I have an internet connection. For example, I have a single note in Nimbus Note for everything to do with conducting 1:2:1 at work. If I read something about this topic, I can capture it and curate it, asking whether this is relevant to put into action. If it is, I can add it to the note in Nimbus Note – and try the information in my next 1:2:1.

Most of my notes are plain text or images, but sometimes I’ll spend time writing my notes out on paper and add them as an image. I’ve been dabbling around with A3 paper for my personal knowledge management also – an analogue personal knowledge management system.

When I add information I am asking a few questions:

  1. Does this information counter something else I already believe – how and why and what can I learn from that?
  2. Does it compliment existing knowledge?
  3. Is it a new piece of information?
  4. Is it duplicate – in which case should I delete it?

I am crunching the information to see how it sits with my current model of this subject and knowledge. I am going through and testing the information. Critical evaluating it and holding it up against what I already currently know. Can it help me? Does it resonate? Should I revisit what I already know in light of this new information? You get the idea – I am digging deep into the piece of information to understand whether I want to assimilate it into my very behaviours.

By using a single note (ideally) for topics I am able to see connections that may need re-assessing in light of the new information. No model I have of communication, for example, is complete. Each time I learn of some new information means my model must grow, flex or change. By using Nimbus Note in this way I can quickly re-assess my understanding and capture the changes.

I use tags A LOT. So, I can search for “communication” as a tag and it will bring back every single note I have tagged with “communication”. This allows me to see all of the varying topics, ideas, themes and connections across my entire personal knowledge management system. Looking at a tag shows how related many topics really are.

Crunching is really the learning phase. This is the assimilation of information from the source, into my own personal knowledge management system construct. I haven’t “learned” it yet as this comes from putting into action the information I have discovered – which is the next part of crunch. But I can add it to my personal knowledge management system, or throw it away at this stage. It’s kind of like a 2nd filter stage for information. Stage 1 is an initial curation stage – a chance to remove the fluff I may have collected. Stage 2 is to test this information against my current models for that topic.

I have lots of notes and each one tries to split out the topic for easy reference and learning. I rarely call on the notes much though, because I tend to spend time practicing and deeply learning that new idea, topic or way of working – in sense, turning this information into action.

I don’t want my personal knowledge management system simply to become a repository of information that I pretend I know. I want to actually know it, to change because of it and to demonstrate this knowledge in my very behaviours – so I must put the information into action. This is also what crunching is.

Learning is about putting what I am capturing, and studying, into action. Otherwise I run the risk of merely becoming a walking talking font of knowledge, who sounds more knowledgable than others but is unable to actually do the things I talk about. Cultivated Management is not about that – I only share what I know and can do.

So, for example, let’s say I discover a new way of organising a meeting that is supposed to lead to deeper insights and richer dialogue. It’s an interesting article and I capture it from a reliable website. I then crunch it by going through it and breaking it apart critically. I will then find an opportunity to try it and see what happens for myself. This is experimentation – which for me is learning. This is crunching.

  1. I’ve discovered something – capture
  2. I’ve tested it to make sure I want to process it – curate
  3. I’ve mashed it with what I already know and am going to try it by bringing this information to life through action – and thus turning it into knowledge – crunch

Learning something for me, is more than simply capturing information. Anyone can do that, and remember what they captured. But not everything works under the same conditions – and I want to know those conditions and mash what I uncover together with other knowledge.

Let’s say I try the new meeting structure with limited success. Let’s say the article (or book) has a ten step model for success. During curating I may disagree with some steps based on what I already know, but I may steal the other seven to try in my next meeting. I try the new approach and 3 of the steps are not needed, and 1 is an absolute disaster. Thankfully, I’ve developed great communication skills, so I can charm my way out of the situation, but I make a note to NEVER do that step again. This is learning. It is crunching.

Yet, i see people everyday who have read a book or guide and they spout it as fact, not realising that it likely won’t work like for like. You need to try what you’re reading and learn yourself – this is crunching.

I have a note in my personal knowledge management system that is all about running effective meetings. So, from the article I had 10 steps for a better meeting (according to the author). I discounted 3 to start with leaving 7. A further 3 of these were not needed as I have something already. That leaves 4 remaining steps that the original author claimed was a 10 step, totally fool proof way to run a meeting. Of the 4 remaining steps, 1 was the complete disaster step that I knew I shouldn’t have run, but I did. Silly me. That leaves 3 of the original 10 that were of some use.

I take those three and weave them into my very own process for running an effective meeting. I now need to test this again and fine tune. Eventually, the note in Nimbus Note will reflect the VERY way I run effective meetings. Hence, I no longer really need to refer back to the personal knowledge management system as I’ve now made effective meetings the very fabric of who I am. I have turned information into action and created knowledge. It is me. I have changed and I exhibit the behaviours needed to run an effective meeting.

Of course, we should watch for believing we are complete and perfect. There is always room for improvement which is why I will still read about how to make meetings more effective. And of course, there will be a time when one of my meetings isn’t very good – and I will go away and think and research, and then capture, curate and crunch again.

I hope this all makes sense, because once you’ve turned information into action, it’s always worthwhile sharing it with other who you may be able to help.

To recap.

  1. I discover something worth learning – capture.
  2. After a few days, I’m still sure it’s worth processing – and I have done a basic sanity test against the information….it could be helpful for me to process and learn this – curate
  3. I then mash it together with my existing notes, try the very information being processed and learn what works and what does not – and reflect this back into my personal knowledge management system – crunch. 

4. Contribution

With enough experiments under my belt about something new, and having taken what is good from the source, and made it part of the very fabric of me (in other words I have turned information into knowledge), I finally feel comfortable explaining the idea to others.

For me, with this site and YouTube channel, it’s pretty straight forward to contribute. I create some content and share it. Or submit a new talk. Or I share a podcast.

But it doesn’t have to be public. Contribution happens in the workplace too – especially so as a manager who is coaching others. There are times to improve a meeting or process, or give someone feedback, or offer some coaching. Maybe you could present at a team or company show and tell, or brown bag lunch (do people still do these?) or maybe set up a small group of people to try this new thing you believe works.

I chose the word “believe” there for a reason. Even though we have turned information into knowledge by crunching it, the other way will still work. There is still another way of doing something and getting success. There is someone else who “knows” something to be true that is opposite or different to yours.

As much as we are gaining knowledge by capturing, curating, crunching and contributing, we should still open our cup as Bruce Lee would say. We are never complete. There is always a better way of doing something. We can always grow. We can always cultivate ourselves.

Other factors


There is no harm in refactoring, changing or abandoning an idea or theory – in fact, as you grow your knowledge, this will happen. The goal is not to collect information for merely repeating it to others – the goal is to grow knowledge and understanding – and teach others. It’s about education, not memorisation.

Full of Dross

If you’ve ever used a company Intranet the chances are you’ll know it’s mostly full of dross. Information, processes, rules, regulations and sources that are out-dated, dubious, pointless, wrong or hard to understand. Most Intranets are full of dross and are best viewed as a corporate tick-boxing exercising. Why? Because they are used to solve the wrong problems.

Intranets are used to document process and rules – not knowledge. Knowledge is best gained by working with people who have the knowledge (hence I try to always put in to practice that which I have learned), yet many companies believe that by simply codifying what can be observed and explained is the same as learning. Hence the Intranets become stale and out-dated as people realise there is a real lack of value in there and people aren’t heavily moderating it to keep it fresh.

The same thing can happen to your own personal knowledge management system. It can become full of dross. This is why it’s important to follow a timely and frequent pruning routine. A routine where you remove the information that makes no sense or is not useful right now, and you only process that which aids your learning. The key is to put it in to practice and not rely on an information repository for your knowledge.

The personal knowledge management system for me is a holding system. It holds the information until I turn it into knowledge. And when it is knowledge in my body, mind and behaviours, the personal knowledge management system acts as a backup and way to see connections and patterns.

Knowledge is information in action. Don’t be fooled into thinking that collecting information is the same as knowledge – it is not. It can be helpful, but knowing a subject and how it works (or doesn’t) is invaluable.

Be sure to keep pruning and remove the dross.

It is incomplete

There is always more to observe and study than can ever be documented and captured, but the more I’ve gained knowledge the more I’ve appreciated I know very little indeed. Sometimes this is soul destroying, but it’s the nature of personal development.

The more I’ve grown my knowledge the more I’ve realised that everything we do is closely intertwined. For example, our management theory is constrained by our language. The way we act has profound effects on others. The way we speak says a lot about ourselves – and hence how others treat us. The systems we build and improve will determine behaviours.

The light in our office is making people sick and weak. It’s all connected. And my knowledge is always incomplete. And just because I have not found evidence of something yet, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist – learning opens my mind – it’s helped me become more tolerant, less opinionated (slightly 🙂 ) and it’s helped me to wonder “why” rather than make assumptions.

But that’s why I need to keep learning – I guess the point is – we’re never done with a subject.

Tools I Use

Here are some of the tools I use for capture, curation, crunching and contributing in my personal knowledge management system.

You don’t need loads of tools to make it work for you. I fell in to a trap once of using too many tools and it didn’t work. Simplicity is the key to getting more done and making the process work.


The key to a successful Personal Knowledge Management System is to keep iterating until it feels right. I doubt you’ll ever get it spot on, but you can get close. Close is good. But as soon as it doesn’t feel right again, try something different.

Having control of your own learning is the best way to grow personally. Becoming a life long learner opens doors, helps you solve problems and really can boost your career. And the best way to ensure success as a learner, is to have a personal knowledge management system that works for you.

I do hope you enjoyed this post.