Personal Knowledge Management: A Strategy for Controlling Information Overload

Jason Frand and Aura Lippincott

February 4, 2002 DRAFT


Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) was developed as a workshop for students in MBA programs at The Anderson School at UCLA. The Anderson School's MBA programs present significant challenges to incoming students: a heavy workload, limited time, extensive and diverse informational resources, and an advanced technological environment that includes a laptop requirement for each entering student. The workshop aimed to teach students practical methods for managing their work and school-related activities and meeting the challenges of a rigorous academic environment. Feedback and input from professionals helped further develop and refine the PKM approach to meet the needs of audiences both inside and outside the academic environment.

PKM is a strategy for managing our information in this information intense environment of today's society where information overload is an intrinsic problem. Implementing this strategy will reduces the negative effects of information overload, while facilitating decision-making, problem solving and knowledge acquisition.

(Note: For the purposes of this paper, we will consider data, information, knowledge and wisdom as different:  we begin with data, add context to get information, add understanding to get knowledge, and add judgement (values) to get wisdom.)

I.  Dimensions of Information Overload

The modern information society

Although a novel approach for dealing with information overload is presented here, the problem has been recognized for a long time. In a 1910 poem, T. S. Elliott wrote:

Where is the wisdom that we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge that we have lost in information?
Where is the information that we have lost in data?
Although written long before computers, the World Wide Web and all of the sophisticated information tools that we have available today this poem still captures the essence of information overload.  However the situation appears to be worsening over time. Whereas in the past one could learn the work of one's parents and continue in their footsteps, it is unlikely today that professions can be transferred from generation to generation. Furthermore, the notion that what you learn in school will carry you through the rest of your life is gone. Today, constant and rapid changes in communication technologies offer ubiquitous access to vast amounts of information, making it a struggle to keep up with the pace and volume of information in our lives.  For example, in some scientific fields information doubles every couple of years making it difficult to keep up with the literature in one's own area of expertise and nearly impossible to delve into other areas.

Information overload is an unfortunate consequence characteristic of today's information and technology rich society.  Its defeat eludes simple technological solutions.  In fact, technology might be said to exacerbate the problem.  However, the effects of information overload can be minimized by understanding the naturde of information overload, how it impacts us and how we unconsciously cope with it. With this understanding, we can begin to take take conscious steps to manage the information we encounter.

Defining information overload

Information overload relates to and is a consequence of how we interact with information. Characteristics of information, such as its vast volume exacerbate the problem of information overload. Our individual differences (e.g. in memory, analytic ability, experience, prior knowledge) enable us to work with vast volumes of information differently, and suggest different points at which information overload becomes an issue. However, information overload affects almost all of us regardless of our capacity for processing information.

Definitions of information overload exist across different disciplines. For the purposes of this paper, we identified four dimensions of information overload that create practical barriers in our personal and professional lives. The first definitional theme is having more relevant information than can be assimilated. For example, we have gathered fifteen different books on a topic, but it is unlikely that we can assimilate all that information. Because the information in the books is relevant, it cannot be ignored without a potentially negative consequence.

A second theme is being burdened by a large supply of unsolicited information, some of which may be relevant. A common example of this situation is email. We receive unsolicited email messages that clog our mailbox and require our attention because the messages may contain relevant or useful information. Each moment we spend determining whether an email message is junk or not, is a moment we cannot spend on one that provides relevant information. Another example is a keyword search for information on the World Wide Web that yields thousands of pages as the set of potential sources. It is unlikely that we can go through every result, but failing to may mean that we miss relevant information.

A third theme has to do with the rate at which we receive information, which may be too high to process. This can occur, for example, in a lecture session where the amount of information disseminated is at too fast a rate to grasp, capture, and assimilate. Consequently, we may leave the lecture having missed important information. 

A fourth theme related to the value of information: As the volume of information with which we deal increases, the perceived value of any one piece of information degrades due to redundancy and noise (irrelevant facts which "clutter" the field). The old fable of the little boy asking his mother where he came from is such an example. The mothers responds with deteails an explanation of the of the birds and the bees, to which the boy replies "My friend Johnny comes from Los Angeles, where do I come from?"

These four aspects of information overload overload -- relevance, unsolicitation, rate and value -- have a number of potentially negative impacts. Information overload can make keeping track of information difficult. It puts us under pressure to multi-task, e.g. speaking on the phone while reading and writing email messages. It leads to an inability to focus and to become frustrated when, for example, we cannot find a file on our computer.  These impacts can induce feelings of distraction and stress and can result in an increased tendency to make mistakes.

Impacts of information overload

We can all recognize the potentially detrimental situations described above and we have devised ways of coping with them. Some of these coping strategies may be conscious, while others may be unconscious of which we are only vaguely aware or perhaps even wish we did not employ.  PKM offers a set of clear approaches that enables us to function more effectively, and to completinge our tasks in spite of the constant onslaught of information. First, let's examine some of the unconscious coping strategies, identified by Miller (1960, other author, date). Miller found that "each [strategy] in some way helps with the problem [of information overload], but each also has a cost in some sort of decreased efficiency of information transmission."

The first coping mechanism identified by Miller is the strategy of omission, or the temporary non-processing of information. This is essentially a state of mental fatigue where we feel as if we are spread much too thin. The feeling that we just cannot deal with all the information flowing to us results in our ignoring or failing to process some of the information.

A second coping strategy is processing information readily at hand, even if it is bad or incorrect information. This describes the concept of GIGO or "garbage in, garbage out."  This involves working with information that may not be the best and making decisions or acting based upon this information. This effectively casts doubt on the outcomes of actions and decisions. For example, it is not uncommon to observe an individual performing a search on the World Wide Web and using only the first few items in the results whether they are good or not.

A third strategy is queuing or delaying the processing of some information with the hope of catching up later. In other words, we may stack up a bunch of information believing we can go through it all at once at a later time. Unfortunately the flow of information does not always slow enough to get back to those piles.

A fourth strategy is information filtering or looking at information at a higher level and saying, "I will go through this and I won't go through that." It is putting items into categories then working with those categories of information, prior to working with the information itself.

A fifth strategy is simply walking away from the task.

A sixth strategy is generalizing -- using minimal information to draw broad conclusions. This is akin to reading only the headlines of a newspaper and speaking as if knowing the details of the articles.

II.  PKM: A conscious strategy for coping with information overload

Although these coping strategies may counter some immediate effects of information overload, they do not offer a sustainable approach. They do not allow individuals to positively affect growth in their personal and professional lives or to take control over the information flooding them. This section describes a practical, effective, and conscious approach to dealing with information overload.

Defining Personal Knowledge Management

Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) is a conceptual framework used to organize and integrate information so that it can become part of our personal knowledge. PKM is a strategy for transforming what might be random pieces of information into something that is more systematic and expands our personal knowledge. PKM's strengths lies in the fact that it is a personalized system designed by an individual for his or her own use. This means that it is organic, growing and changing with an individualís personal lifestyle and interests.

PKM is a strategy for dealing with information (and information overload) while at the same time enabling us to build upon or learn from the information we use resulting in the growth of our personal knowledge. Since building our personal knowledge entails learning, we need to take a brief look at some concepts from learning theory, specifically as they relate to the ideas of transforming information into knowledge. The ideas presented here are a simplification of the concepts presented by Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995).

Nonaka and Takeuchi present the idea of a "knowledge spiral" which describes the process of transforming information into knowledge. A spiral is used to represent the fact that knowledge acquisition is an iterative process involving exposure to some information, dialoging about it, linking it to other known things, and experimenting and working with the information. This process repeats many cycles to build our knowledge. For example, in a classroom setting, faculty members introduce an idea (exposure), students read about (silent dialog) and discuss it with classmates (oral dialog), do homework assignments (experimenting) and term papers (linking), and thus move the information from something external to themselves into concepts and ideas which are part of their knowledge. While many of the the PKM tacticsstrategies we describe focus on information, collectively the strategy as a wholey contributes to the learning process and the transformation of information into knowledge.

PKM does not refer to important personal task management tools such as "to do" lists, calendars, address books, appointment books, and some of the very primitive personal digital assistants. PKM focuses on the content of the tasks on our "to do" lists, specifically with the information and knowledge requirements associated with that content. As such, PKM comes into play wherever and whenever working with information and knowledge, whether it is with paper documents, electronic documents, email and snail mail, in our offices, in our homes or on the road.

PKM involves consciously applying a strategy to model your knowledge domains and the application of a set of supporting tactics consisting of heuristics (rules of thumb) and activities.

PKM Strategy

At the core of the PKM strategy is creating a mental map of the information we encournterencounter so that it evolves into our knowledge. Our computer hard drives can serve as a n surrogate --? a place to create or a representation ? -- of that information and for our knowledge domains.

This areaThe first step in the PKM strategy entails defining and utilizing implementing a personal classification schemes, indexing and filing principles. It seems so much easier to just put that piece of paper in a pile on our desk or just hit the save command on our computer and not worry about it, than take the time to file the information in a meaningful way. By "meaningful way" we mean we can find that information when we need it weeks or months later. In the past, filing systems were something that only those with massive amounts of information needed to concern themselves. However, with everyone using computers, creating, saving and retrieving numerous files all the time, working with a file management system is now an everyday occurrence.

Here are quotes from two MBA students with different approaches to filing their electronic documents:

Example 1

"My system is relatively inefficient and practically nonexistent.  This can be attributed to my resistance to spend time up-front organizing information.  In my rush to begin the next task, I failed to set up a system that helps me easily find data at a later date unless I remember the document title."
Example 2
"My file structure is based on a simple philosophy:  I have a limited amount of short term memory and therefore, I use my directories/ sub directories to lead me to the files I need.  I try to use consistent file names so that once Iím in the right directory, all my file conventions are simple and I know where to look."
These quotes highlight the value of a systematic versus a non-systematic approach. They illustrate the value of investing time to set up a filing structure that will facilitate retrieval of the information that you thought important enough to store. It is not difficult to see that more time will be saved than spent in the long term by thinking about your filing strategy.

In evaluating file structures, we found that there are four broad approaches commonly used. One is a chronological or "when" approach which uses the date as a way of setting up the file structure. The chronological approach is very easy to set up and works extremely well near the time when the files are being actively used. However this approach does not have good long-term retrieval value because it requires that you think in terms of time (when you stored the information) rather than content (what information you need or how you are using it).

A second and more powerful approach is a functional or "what" structure. This uses the nature of the content as the basis for storing your information. This brings like and kind material together in one category such as all materials on a specific topic or related to a specific project or person. It is easier to find information and works very well when there are a small number of categories. However as the number of categories increases, it is more difficult to manage and requires the creation of subcategories. Also, some concepts and material cross functional boundaries, thus simply looking at what the information is rather than how it is used makes it difficult as a sole categorization structure.

A third approach is to organize your information by role or "how" information is used. You create categories which reflect your orientation toward the information: club folders to reflect your membership, hobby and travel folders to reflect your interest, job folders to reflect your work responsibilities. This approach facilitates retrieval, since you look for information in terms of the context in which you will use it. The most difficult part of the role approach is identifying what your roles are, and roles change over time requiring updating and modification of categories.

A fourth, extremely inefficient, approach was observed for how people saved material electronically on their computers, which we call the naive approach. In this approach word processing documents are saved in the word application, spreadsheets in the spreadsheet application, and presentations in the presentation application. That is, the individual just let the software save the files to the default location. So, if an individual were working with a specific company, for an example a project with UCLA, he or she would have a UCLA file in each of those applications rather than bringing them all together in a functional organization.

None of these approaches are ideal alone. Instead a combination making use of nested folder (folders within folders) is the most powerful. Our experience suggests that it is best to use hierarchies and create new categories when necessary. The highest level of the hierarchy should be the "how" structure, with the "what" nested within those and if the topic is one which extends over an extended period, "when" folders within those. As a general rule, organize from the general to the more specific, putting the actual items (files being saved) into narrowest (most specific) category.

Figure 1 below demonstrates the hierarchical structure as used by one of the authors (Frand). At the highest level are themy roles (five: teacher: teacher, administrator, committee, personal, researcher and teacher) and within each are major functional elements, some by project (network, software development, budget) and some by people (Jones, Smith, Rogers). Within the project areas may be additional project categories, while some are divided by time. For example, with in the teaching area is a course taught many times over the years (mgmt 404, fall99, sp01). One aspect of the power of this file structure is that it has now been replicated on all my computers (home, office, laptop) and in my physical office space for the organization of papers, books, and other materials. In addition, my bookmark files in my Web browser are similarly organized. Thus, every place information is encountered, a similar organizational structure is established, leading to a substantial improvement managing the vast array of information encountered. (A major frustration with the email client currently available currently being used is that it does not accommodate nested folders and thus it has been necessary to modify the structure.)


Figure 1: Sample of a PKM motivated file structure

If you have an existing file structure and want to transition to a new structure, we recommended that you put all old files into one folder (perhaps labellaibeled "old files"), then create the new folder structure (which will evolve as you have more material to add to it). AThen add all new files you create going forward to the new structure and . oOnly move old files as they are retrieved for use from the "old files" folder.

PKM Tactics

Creating thisis mental map -- and its representaionrepresentation as a filing structure on our computer hard drive -- is the first step in controllingin overloadcontrolling overload and making information more managablemanageable. The next step is applying a set of huersisticheuristics (rules of thumb) as well as some specific activities which better able us to deal with the information we encourterencounter.


At the heart of dealing with information overload and the issues of information relevance, unsolicitation, rate and value, is establishing an organizational structure that matches our roles (who we are) and the tasks or functions within each role (what we do).  This is a dynamic structure that evolves and changes as our roles and responsibilities change. The PKM strategy offers an effective method for modeling our knowledge domains and information requirementsónamely, through the utilization of our computer hard drives as a surrogate. PKM tactics offer practical rules of thumb for effectively performing our daily information activities.  For example, relevance of information is considered not only at the time when we are searching the vast stores of information available, but also at the time we choose our information sources.  Consequently, these sources will yield more relevant results with less noise, increasing the value of the information.  Filtering information via criteria that we consider in advance (e.g., when setting up email filters) or selectively pulling some information while controlling what is pushed to us are tactics for managing unsolicited information and the rate of information flow.

Jason Frand and Aura Lippincott
Working copy posted February 4, 2002