As with the past instances of my knowledge management class at Northwestern, I asked the students to reflect on their own "personal knowledge management" practices. The assignment reads:
What does your personal knowledge management space look like? How do you organize your e-mail, contacts, files, internet favorites/bookmarks, paper filing? Do you organize it at all? Do you have a goal for this system? Do you stick to the goal? (drawings / pictures encouraged).
As in the past, the responses varied from messy (piles on the table) to clean; heavily structured content to large buckets of stuff; relying on memory to writing things down. I also get a great glimpse into how each student thinks and conceptualizes their worlds by seeing this view of how they see their personal space.
The assignment kicks off a discussion around personal knowledge management and how it is important for the individual to be aware of how their management of their "stuff" impacts their ability to work.
Another discussion that this assignment creates is around the "ideal" system. I subscribe to the "inbox zero" or "empty inbox" ideal as described by a number of personal effectiveness coaches, notably David Allen in Getting Things Done. I like the idea that having already-processed email staring at me wastes brain cycles thinking about what I want to do with that email. However, there was a good class discussion of why people might prefer to keep their inbox full of stuff and how they fit their email tools into their larger process around managing their time. I am biased, but it seemed that most of the counter-arguments had to do with the fact that people didn't have a reliable system to manage this work in some other way. That's the key behind any good system: it can't be a simple outward sign like an empty inbox. There has to be the trusted system working in the background.
A few people mentioned the issue of synchronizing information across contexts: laptop, mobile phone, PDA is the obvious discussion for electronic media. This one is bothersome for me as well. I particularly dislike the incomplete solutions offered by my gizmo manufacturers around synchronizing between devices. I suspect it makes the individual devices less effective for me. There is also the concern that work, home and school are synchronized. This is troubling particularly when the contexts require separation (privacy). Separating the contexts also ends up creating additional systems by which people manage their information streams. This can either create more confusion or smooth things, depending on the system.
One topic we didn't delve into in great detail was the discussion of effectiveness vs. efficiency that many people mentioned in their description of what they want their system to be. I suspect many people use the terms interchangeably, and if we have time in a future class, I would like to walk through a discussion on this topic.
Finally, we talked about how one's personal decisions and style impact the people around them. This extends much more than simply how I manage my filing cabinet: how do I make requests of people; how do I expect requests to be made of me; do I know how to communicate with a variety of styles?