The Personal Value of Common Knowledge


A quick trip to Wikipedia spotted this definition:

Personal knowledge management (PKM) is a collection of processes that a person uses to gather, classify, store, search, retrieve, and share knowledge in his or her daily activities.

That seems pretty straightforward, but just for kicks let’s dig into it a bit.

To start: personal management of knowledge is not necessarily about “personal knowledge” at all.

We can collect and organize vast quantities of artifacts that provide us with the knowledge we want, while none of those artifacts need to be original work of our own. In this case, the most interesting issue is in the personal decisions we make about why to collect something, or later why to share it.

It is also interesting to understand that collecting content is not necessarily collecting knowledge… The true origination of knowledge is in the awareness of why and how something has meaning. In other words, knowledge is created by arranging things in a manner that reveals meaning.

The Wikipedia definition literally appears to say that we can personally classify knowledge. That is clearly true; for most of us, getting through school critically depended on finding a usable organization of knowledge already produced and organized by someone else!

The most interesting effect of classification, however, is when knowledge emerges from discoveries made by classifying things.

The easy example of that is when a suggestion is made to us such as, “Did you know that a tomato is a fruit?” When the classification of something is proposed, that thing may immediately be seen in a different way. We start looking at it as something that may also have features we didn’t notice before, or uses that we didn’t suspect before. Or, something about it that didn’t make sense before suddenly makes sense. In other words, the classification can change our perspective on the item.

Sharing knowledge, then, might really be something that works by having one party share their perspective on something with another party; the other party can newly “experience” the item for themselves in the shared perspective, and in that way “learn” something that the first party already knew.

When we put it that way, there doesn’t seem to be any news value or special insight to take from it. But it’s a useful reminder that when we point at something and call it “knowledge”, it is important to ask “for whom?”

And then, as collectors and sharers, we can decide in advance not only who we want to “inform”, but more so who we want to learn from us and how we want them to learn. Although these can be seen as “management” decisions, it’s important to recognize that they are “creative” decisions as well.

Two key steps in generating shared knowledge will be to define the perspectives being used, and to propose which items should be seen in which perspective.

As a first order of business, however, there needs to be a common understanding of the perspectives. If that is achieved, then the potential value of shareable or re-usable content is much higher. It’s the heart of “classification”. In fact, without that action, the rest of the Wikipedia definition might not add up to something “knowledgeable”.