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November 28, 2005

Personal Knowledge Management

Most interventions to improve performance in business are at the organizational or process level, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We can also improve individual capabilities. Ultimately, knowledge worker performance comes down to the behaviors of individual knowledge workers. If we improve their individual abilities to create, acquire, process and use knowledge, we are likely to improve the performance of the processes they work on, and the organizations they work for.

Individual knowledge work improvement initiatives have two attributes. One, they are directly focused on improving performance of knowledge worker employees as individuals, not as members of a larger group. A CRM program for customer service workers doesn’t qualify, because a number of people in that function would use it, and the system is not (or at least rarely) customized to individual needs. Secondly, individually-oriented initiatives are targeted at improving some skill or capability, rather than instituting a new process. Once again, giving knowledge workers a new piece of hardware or software—say, a personal digital assistant or cell phone—wouldn’t qualify, but teaching them how to use these devices effectively would.

I became persuaded of the virtues of improving knowledge worker capabilities at the personal level when working with the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie-Mellon. As you may know, the SEI is famous for its “Capability Maturity Model,” an assessment tool for software engineering processes. It evaluates firms or business units on their overall approaches to software development. But Watts Humphrey, the developer of the CMM, had another key insight. He realized that it was taking too long for many organizations to move up through five stages of the CMM, and began to think about what might accelerate the process. He concluded that if organizations were to develop team and individual-level capabilities in addition to those at the organizational level, they would probably improve much faster.

SEI’s research has borne out this hypothesis. Companies employing the “personal software process” and the “team software process” have been known to move from the lowest to highest levels of software development maturity in about a year—versus an average of close to ten years for this journey using only organization-level approaches.

Just as in software development, there are generic knowledge worker skills that almost everyone employs, and could benefit from improving. What do all knowledge workers do? They read and write, of course, and our educational systems do a pretty decent job of inculcating these skills. Even that doesn’t stop some assiduous knowledge workers from taking courses in speed reading, business writing, or the like. No doubt more of this should be done.

Knowledge workers also spend a lot of time in meetings. Most organizations, of course, don’t do a very good job at helping their employees run meetings effectively. A few, like Xerox, have organization-wide programs focused on maintaining a high quality of meetings. However, there are plenty of written materials and educational options for people who want to learn more about meeting management, so I won’t say anything more about it here.

Increasingly, however, knowledge workers also process information—on paper, in telephone conversations and voice messages, and electronically. This subject is much newer than reading, writing, and meeting, and there is relatively little information available about how to do it well, or how organizations can help their knowledge workers do it well. In my recent book Thinking for a Living, I report on three research efforts to better understand this subject. Two were undertaken by a group of companies seeking to understand information work; both corporate and individual-level research projects were undertaken by this group. The report from that project can be found here.

In the same chapter I also report on more detailed interviews of individuals who claim to be very effective in the own personal information and knowledge management. I think this is a fast-rising topic, and we will be hearing much more about it in the future.

Others who have written about it online include Dave Pollard, a former CKO from Ernst & Young and David Gurteen, a long-term web guy and blogger on KM.

Posted by Tom Davenport on November 28, 2005 07:11 PM | Permalink

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» Tom Davenport on Personal Knowledge Management from ChristianSarkar.com
Says TD: "Most interventions to improve performance in business are at the organizational or process level, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We can also improve individual capabilities. Ultimately, knowledge worker performance comes down to the be... [Read More]

Tracked on November 28, 2005 11:20 PM

» Let's avoid the grand unifying approach to Personal Knowledge Management from Anecdote
Tom Davenport relates an interesting observation about the Capability Maturity Model (CMM) by its developer, Watts Humphrey. He realized that it was taking too long for many organizations to move up through five stages of the CMM, and be... [Read More]

Tracked on November 30, 2005 12:51 AM


Ditto to Joim's first paragraph.

The tools will keep getting easier, and woven into work processes, but also personalized to a given worker's cognitive style(s).

... leading us to "the mass customization of work" .. standardizing many processes in he "electronic concrete" of big integrated enterprise systems, and at the other pole offering workers plug-ins for small, flexible and powerful tools that help workers gather, stitch together, and publish information to a variety of useful destinations.

Cognitive psycholiogy will, I think, play more and more of a rle .. the tools becoming closer aligned with the "thinking" and knowledge construction gestures and behaviours of each individual knowledge worker.

The challenges will probably most often remain structural and psychological, in the sense of org structure and culture .. I think it remains to be seen to what degree organizations will take advantage of the opportunities now available to design and implement more responsive and flexible decision-making structures.

Posted by: Jon Husband | November 29, 2005 02:17 PM


So good to have you adding your insights to the blogosphere. As much as I am enjoying Thinking for a Living, I'm greedy enough to prefer getting an earlier look at your work.

I've come to much the same conclusions you have on the potential leverage points inherent in looking at the opportunity to improve the lot of those of us doing knowledge work. One place to get a look at some of that thinking would be this entry on my blog - A strategy for personal knowledge management - http://www.mcgeesmusings.net/2005/05/26.html#a4627

Posted by: Jim McGee | November 28, 2005 11:08 PM

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