Knowledge management

I hate the term “knowledge management”, but that’s what we call it, huh?

There’s lot of ways people have tried to organise all their thoughts, snippets of useful knowledge, things they might want to refer to again later.

The problem

The main problem here is that we’re collecting unstructured information, and want to give it structure. However, we cannot be certain of the circumstances under which we’ll want the information again in the future. This is the kind of problem pragmatism talks about, and tries to deal with.

In this issue of Superorganisers, the author discusses how something like a CRM is an “easy problem” when it comes to knowledge management - we know exactly the kind of structure to use in our notes because we know the exact circumstances under which we’ll want to get the information back at the other end. But then consider a knowledge bank like a digital garden or the like. When might we want to access a given piece of information?

  • When we recall reading something a couple of months ago on a certain topic, but we can’t remember where.
  • When we’re doing some research on a related topic and want to just see everyone we’ve got on that topic.
  • When we’re collating a bunch of notes with a theme that we’ve only just uncovered by thinking things through a bunch.
  • When we’re looking through all the notes from a given series, author, etc.

But overall, we don’t know why or when we’ll want to access this knowledge. We can only guess.

Angles of attack

So what types of solutions do we see, why do they differ, how do they line up?

Commonplace book

See also: Ten books I enjoyed this year - 2021 edition

This is the ur-knowledge management system: a book with quotes, ideas, thoughts, and references, organised and indexed by topic. Locke’s method for creating a common-place book is as follows:

  1. Take a new, empty book.
  2. Take the first two pages and turn them into a table of contents.
    • Split each table of contents page into two columns, and ensure each column can fit six groups of five lines. This will give you 120 lines total (30 lines per column, two columns per page, two pages total).
    • Assign each group to a letter of the alphabet, in alphabetical order (A, B, C, etc.). You won’t quite have enough - skip Q.
    • Inside each group, write the five vowels in order. For the group ZU, write ZU/QU.
    • You will now have a grouped list of letter combinations AA, AE, AI, AO, AU, BA, BE, BI, BO, BU, etc.
  3. Whenever you find something worth writing down:
    • Assign it a “head word”. This is the word you’ll want to look it up by later.
    • Work out the two-letter combination which applies to this headword. The combination is equal to the first letter of the word, plus the next vowel. For example, “Epistle” would be filed under “EI”.
    • Look up that combination in your table of contents. If there’s a number there, turn to that page and write your thought down there, starting with the headword in bold so you’ll spot it later.
    • If there’s no number there, turn to the first blank page in your book, note the page number in the table of contents, and start writing.

This is obviously a pre-digital system, designed for pre-digital lookup and pre-digital searching. It is, I feel, incredibly effective for what is basically a five-minute setup. It suffers a little from the fact that you’re never quite looking up the word you actually want - you’re going to have to search through “Existence”, “Excitement”, and “Ellipses” to find all your notes on “Epistles”.

Recreating this digitally could either be considered:

  • short-sighted - why not take advantage of what digital offers, in terms of infinite space, indexing, etc?
  • smart - by embracing the limitations of a previous technology and introducing just a little friction, perhaps we build a better vehicle for non-linear thinking and synthesis of ideas.

The Outboard Brain - Merlin Mann

This is a technique that I encountered via Merlin Mann at some point, and which barely qualifies as knowledge management except that yeah, it’s designed to help you manage a bunch of things you need to know.

This technique basically relies on using a tool like Notational Velocity, combined with a simple set of keywords, usually either starting with or ending in an unusual set of characters (for example, the letter “X”).

When you want to write something down, you add the appropriate keyword to the title of the note. For example, my research notes on epistles would have the keyword “EpistleX” in their title. Then, to look up, I just need to enter “EpistleX” into the search bar.

This is basically a slightly more advanced version of the common-place book, even if the focus is a lot more on how to remember everyday things like where you put your keys than important philosophical ramifications. I think we still see this common theme, though, of irregular and spaced input (for a given topic) versus batch output. In other words:

  • You often want to record little snippets every couple of months across all kinds of contexts.
  • When you want to get the information out, you want to review everything you’ve added over the past several months.

The outboard brain is very much a practical solution, focussed on getting you to the thing you want right away. The following are more complex.

Spark file

I cannot find my original reference for this technique. This is a technique for creative writing, whereby you file your ideas, thoughts, little bits of story and the like, all in one file, simply organised by date (if by anything at all). Then at regular periods you just read through the whole file, being open to connections between ideas or things you’ve forgotten you’d thought of.

This method is as pragmatist as possible - it even potentially rejects the notion that ideas like this can be categorised at all. It makes finding a specific idea basically impossible unless you’re willing to read through the whole file. See the notes about about friction with commonplace books - this makes friction a feature.


Now we’re getting into the weeds. Zettelkasten is German for “slip box”, and leverages a lot of the technology used in pre-digital card catalogue systems. The Zettelkasten system has a long history of use branching from the commonplace book approach, but a lot of modern use is based off the work of German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (or at least he seems to be the person who is mentioned in the introductory sections of articles and books on modern zettelkasten use). Luhmann is probably the example people use because he was an incredibly prolific writer, authoring more than 70 books and 400 papers on a wide variety of subjects.

The core concept in a zettelkasten is that each individual thought or idea is recorded on a notecard or “slip”, and is then kept in a box. Slips are usually indexed, often based on some sort of heirarchical system of classification, and may require a couple of passes before they’re correctly filed in the system. By having a unique identifier per card (and a systematic filing/lookup system) it’s also possible to cross-reference cards, allowing for linking.

I suspect that a lot of the fascionation with Luhmann’s system is cargo culting to a lesser or greater degree: Luhmann would probably have been prolific with our without his system, but it’s easier to spend time mucking about with productivity systems than actually try to do work, so let’s do that instead.

In the past few years there’s been a sudden growth in digital zettlekasten software and material. I’m not sure what caused this - the technology has been there all along, it’s not particularly computationally hard to do this kind of thing - but now it feels like there’s a whole sub-industry of note-taking and “personal knowledge management” tools and books and techniques. The main focus here seems to be on personal efficiency, recall, linking topics, etc., although the kind of people who push this also seem to have their whole identity linked to PKMs, rather than already being prolific authors, scientists, philosophers, etc. I guess what I’m saying here is, maybe the best person to coach you on running is another runner, and not a running shoe manufacturer.

The great focus on this new sub-industry feels like effiency and productivity. I’m not sure I’m at all interested in it.

Digital garden

See also: digital garden