A Personal Knowledge Management System

Recently, I wrote about how a personal blog could become our third memory (after our personal memory and Google). I wanted to build on these ideas. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I feel that a blogwith an RSS Aggregator has the potential to become the killer app on the PC an integrated personal information system which we have so sorely lacked all these years.

As of now, many of us use Outlook for mails, contacts, scheduling and ToDo lists. But Outlook doesnt come free. And Outlook Express which is the free version has only mail. Our writing environment today consists of email and MS-Office (mainly MS-Word). So, we have mails and documents which cannot be referenced, i.e, they do not have an addressable URL. If I wanted to search for all interactions with a person, I have to search through a mlange of folders and documents. In addition, if I wanted to summarise notes and meeting minutes, I either will have them in my (paper) notebook or in documents or mails which I somehow need to associate together.

In other words, information is scattered in multiple places and is hard to find when I need it. The issue with this is that as we think, meet people, there are lots of ideas and tidbits which cross our path. If only we could catch all of them so that they could come back to us when we need them. Today, the mix of our memory and the computers search system is just not good enough. In fact, on most occasions, it is easier to find things on the Web (through Google) than it is on our own file system.

Everyone would like a Personal Knowledge Management System if it were inexpensive and easy to use. After all, we all have a brain and if we can complement that with technology, it can make a big difference to our personal productivity. That is really the key today, there is a growing recognition that knowledge resides not in databases, but in peoples heads. What is needed is an integrated read-write person, one which in the future can also be accessible through SMS and MMS from cellphones.

A Private Blog

I have been writing a blog for about 2 months now. Besides writing on Emergic and other topics, I have been using my blog for linking to articles I find of interest and which I can reference later. I have even begun giving links in my emails to some of my blog posts. Earlier, I used to read articles on the Web and the ones I found interesting, I would email them to myself. Id make notes in my paper notebook. The problem is that not only were the articles hard to find later, even my own comments would get lost in my notes.

The blog makes this process different by: (a) providing a link online to the full-text of the article (b) enabling me to excerpt the parts which I find interesting (c) put my comments in place (d) categorise the article (I could do this through folders in mail also), and finally (e) be able to search. This combination of things is what I have found most useful. Its one single place I can now find everything and which is available through a browser.

I recently started a personal (private) blog. This blog is only accessible to me. This enables me to do my own writing now in a single place. I still make my notes in the paper notebook but increasingly, I am now summarising my thoughts on to the blog. In a way, the blog becomes like a Table of Contents (with summaries) to my paper notebook — one which is searchable. I now also copy-and-paste emails of interest, with my replies. The best part is that on a single page, I can view so much more information (in emails, one has to view each separately). This is one of my biggest learnings from Samachar the power of providing a lot of things (links) on a single page. Scrolling is easy, clicking to a new page is disruptive because it takes just that wee-bit extra time.

Information Unifier

Now, let us take this further. Add to it an RSS Aggregator and gateways for other forms of input. For example, mails could flow into the RSS Aggregator (through filters), making it easy for me to post them on to the blog. When replying, I can just cc to a special address which automatically posts it to the blog. I can post entire articles of interest to my personal blog (which I cannot do with a publicly accessible blog). In fact, a lot of the thinking and writing that is done can be summarized on the blog so it can be easily found through search or category- or time-based navigation later.

Heres what can go into a private blog:
– meeting notes
– email that I get or write
– appointments (future calendar)
– full-length posts of articles
– files that I create
– add: related stories (links to previous posts)
– notes to myself (can also post through SMS to a blog)
– personal diary
– address book linkage
– one page (category) per project I am working on
– one page per person I know
– blog posts from family and friends
– any other events of significance

These are just a few ways to get started. Over time, each of us will create our own views of how we want to manage our information. The key point is that this has the potential to become an information unifier, a personal knowledge management system.

The personal blog also answers one key question that has been bothering me for some time: when we give computers to all via Thin Clients, what is the killer app? This is it. The writing space. And in time to come, it can get extended to pictures, audio, and even videos. Disk space is cheap enough to not worry about it now. The Thick Server can have all the personal blogs.

The blog posts from other sources would flow into an RSS Aggregator, and I can then decide if it needs to (a) get blogged with or without my comments (b) which categories it should get published to, and (c) create an RSS feed which then distributes the item to others.

Some of the other utilities besides the blogging platform and the RSS Aggregator can add value. Outlines can help organize information that is not chronological. For example, all my ideas on a specific topic can be organized hierarchically. Directories can work like an extension of my Bookmarks. Filters can auto-process blog posts coming in and going out. Categories helps in better organising my blog. Search helps me find items.

Write Once and Syndicate

We have so far talked about personal blogs. The same ideas can be leveraged within the enterprise, too. So, in essence, we will have a single writing space, but can have multiple blogs (think of them as category hierarchies) to which we can post:
– Public blog, accessible to all
– Personal blog, accessible to none other than self
– Group blogs, for official use (for projects, teams work-related) and shared use (friends, family)
When I make a post, I decide where it should flow.

The Web Browser created a single Reading environment. What has been missing is a single Writing environment this is what blogs do. More importantly, they enable two-way flow, via the ability to publish (syndicate) RSS feeds. This is part of the Digital Dashboard ideas that Ive been writing about here. The difference is that a personal blog can become a universal application (like email and Instant Messaging) for communicating and sharing. From our point of view, it becomes an application which can justify an investment of USD 20 (Rs 1,000) per month on hardware and software for everyone, with the belief that it will increase either productivity by at least 10-15%.

In my view of the world, Outlook and MS-Office are non-starters on the desktop because of their costs. What the combination of a Blogs, RSS Aggregators, Outliners, Directories, Filters and Search does is create a fresh, new environment in the form of the personal knowledge management system for near-zero incremental cost. It is one which can create a lot of value for server-based computing both in the office and at home. Think of the computer screen now as the “one screen to know it all”

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.