top of page

We are all Knowledge Managers

1 September 2017

Maskit Robinshtein

Workers in the field of Knowledge and Data Management usually deal with sharing information among colleagues, making organizational content accessible, retaining professional knowledge, setting up business databases, etc. Yet there is another side to this field, namely personal KM, in which we all play the role of knowledge manager. Furthermore, we all manage several channels: our home computer, the work computer, our "pocket computer" i.e. our Smartphone and for some a tablet/smart watch as well.

Personal data is the type I own and possess. It includes documents, messages (email, text messaging, etc.) media documents, 'favorites' list, etc. While it wasn't necessarily who generated this data, it was I who chose to collect, keep and organize it for future retrieval. These precise activities (collecting, retaining, organizing and retrieving) are those studied in the field of "personal Knowledge Management", a field developed in the 1980s when the PC was realized as a KM tool.


The field of "personal Knowledge Management" integrates psychology and technology, theory and practice. It is an attempt to comprehend the users' experience when managing their personal data; more specifically its motives and how to improve its execution. The field raises questions such as: in what ways are digital and physical document management similar? Is it more comfortable for a user to stack documents in 'piles' similarly to files on a desk? Perhaps it digital folders are preferable? How does one construct a document management system that optimally suits personal data organization? How can search engines be adapted to better retrieve personal data? Most importantly, how do we apply personal KM tools when remembering, organizing and retrieving data in our minds?


A prominent dilemma in this field is which retrieval method is better, searching or navigating. This dilemma is not merely theoretical since it bears practical implications regarding the manner in which document management systems as well as search engines are set up. Well. Which method is indeed more worthwhile?


Although navigation seems more complex and therefore requires preparing in advance and despite the fact that we are used to running searches via Google and other systems on a daily basis, various studies have shown that most users choose to navigate their way to their personal data.

The reasons for this unexpected preference include a consistent use of the same steps in a familiar environment, relying on visual rather than verbal memory and the fact that we end to locate physical data based on its location. Furthermore, navigation has been shown to require fewer cognitive resources such as attention and concentration and as such allows us to flow between folders without losing our train of thought.


The array of data items we keep on our personal computer is similar to a maze. In order to navigate through this maze we must know where to take a turn and we might still run into a wall or obstacle which forces us to turn back on our heels and start from square one. Search engines indeed diagonally cross the maze, yet if we don't precisely discern their direction we just might reach the wrong end. Retrieving data from our PC is not unlike navigating through our own neighborhood; unlike retrieving data from a website, we know how to find our way through its allies in ease. A spectator might ignorantly believe we are lost or simply taking an unnecessarily longer route; nevertheless, we as locals know best.

For more on the subject I highly recommend 'The science of managing our digital stuff' by Dr. Ofer Bergman and Prof. Steve Whittaker.


Full disclosure: this article is based on my thesis on "the use of attention resources in personal data retrieval- navigating versus searching", submitted to Bar Ilan University in 2011 (directed by Dr. Ofer Bergman).

bottom of page