PKM Tool Concepts

A beginner’s overview to picking the right PKM tool!

PKM Tool Concepts

There are new articles published about tools for PKM (Personal Knowledge Management) almost daily, in part because new tools are being constantly built and implemented.

In fact, there are so many of these tools that it can become almost immediately overwhelming for a PKM novice.

  • Which of the literally hundreds of digital PKM tools should you go for?
  • Does it matter if you pick one and then want to change later?
  • Is there really such a thing as a perfect tool for managing the sum total of your thinking and experience?

In a word: no.

Any tool that attempts to sell you on the idea that it is the best is, simply, lying to you.

This is a rapidly expanding field, one gaining ground in the popular consciousness. In such a situation, oodles of dollars are just waiting to be made by the intrepid, the callous, and the downright dishonest.

Fundamentally, Tiago Forte is right when he says that it doesn’t matter what tool you use, so long as you have a good system. But this isn’t the complete picture.

  • There are such things as bad PKM tools.
  • There are popular tools that make it very difficult to leave once you’ve started to use them. Tools that fail to protect your privacy, or mine your data for their own ends.
  • And there are tools that have already gone by the wayside, dying out only to leave their users struggling to pick up the pieces.

As such, the goal of this article is twofold:

  1. To outline the core aspects to look for in a good PKM tool
  2. To understand if a tool can support the best PKM system, the best structure, for your needs.

The core principles of good PKM tools

A good PKM tool should have the following components:

Versatility:

The ability to handle a wide number of PKM systems and styles, or the ability to integrate with other tools that make up any gaps.

There are tools out there that are intentionally designed to only meet the needs of dedicated Zettelkasten creators, for instance. But such tools require an in-depth understanding of the Zettelkasten system to use well in the first place, and aren’t going to be very flexible if you decide you have different PKM needs.

Likewise, these single-system tools often rely on specific conventions that can make it difficult to transfer your work to a different tool later on.

Transferability:

The ability to easily move your data from one tool to another without compromising its integrity. Your tool shouldn’t force you to only export via PDF files, for instance.

Generally, you want a system that uses plain text or Markdown (MD).

  • Plain text files tend to work well on any computer, and can be read by really old computers as well as really new ones. It’s a very simple format and is easy to move.
  • Markdown is a plain-text “coding language” where the “code” itself is extremely simple and can be read like a plain text file. But, once read and interpreted by a program, that plain text code becomes fancy rich text, with italics, bolded text, text sizes and colors, and all the basic formatting you’re likely to need

Longevity:

Tied to the concept of transferability, longevity refers to both a tool’s own stability and to its reliance on techniques of storing your data that won’t easily change.

You don’t want to put all your precious knowledge inside a tool that’s only been around for two years.

Likewise, you would rather not use a tool that stores your data in an extra proprietary format. Your data should also not be dependent upon paying a monthly fee.

Security:

Your PKM might have nothing in it that you’d mind other people seeing, but it also might be a place where you store extremely personal information.

This isn’t an article that attempts to tackle the complex realm of attack surfaces and threat models, but you should still keep this in mind.

At the very least, tools that store your information “local first” are always better than tools that store your information “in the cloud.”

Some tools offer advanced encryption of your data, and this might be worthwhile if you’re someone who stores their private diaries, medical information, and copies of your tax records in your PKM.

However, better encryption often means losing out on certain aspects of transferability and ease-of-use, so it does require some thought on your part.

Ease-of-Use (EoU):

If a tool isn’t easy to use, the most people will probably not end up using it at all. EoU is shorthand for a range of user experience aspects, from the interface a tool uses, to its ability to sync to the cloud, to how well it works across different devices and operating systems.

  • EoU is difficult to measure because every individual will likely have certain requirements that alter what an ideal EoU looks like.
  • EoU could refer to whether a tool was made “native” for an operating system so that it fits in seamlessly alongside the other apps a user is used to.
  • EoU could also refer to how simple a tool is to start using, and how easily it allows a user to expand into more advanced features only as they start needing them.

Understanding PKM systems and their relationship to tools

I mentioned earlier that I find some of the tools designed for a specific PKM system to be overly restrictive.

Learning a PKM system takes time, patience, and practice, and you may eventually find yourself ready to settle down with a very specialized tool that best supports a specific style or method of knowledge management.

However, for those starting out on the PKM journey, I stress that tools which are more open-ended and allow for personal deviation from pre-scripted systems are actually the batter choice.

I have what I call a permeable boundaries model of PKM to describe my thinking on this.

The permeable boundaries model of PKM

Within current computer operating systems, the file-folder structure of information is the most prevalent.

By placing folders within other folders, you can create ever-deeper categories of information. The trouble is that what is placed into one folder is not visible from, or in any way connected to, the information in another folder.

A PKM system needs to allow for the organization of information into categories while ensuring that information in one category can be seen, and connected with, information in other categories. The tool that you use for such a PKM system must also allow for this type of visibility and interconnection.

Summing it all up

The rapid growth of Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) tools has led to a deluge of options, making it overwhelming for beginners to pick one to start with. But, despite claims of superiority from certain tools, there’s no one perfect option.

Tiago Forte rightly emphasizes the importance of a good system over the tool itself, as not all PKM tools are equal — some may lock you in or even compromise your privacy.

I addressed two main points in this article: identifying key aspects of a good PKM tool and assessing whether a tool supports the ideal PKM system for individual needs.

Key components of a good PKM tool include versatility, transferability, longevity, security, and ease-of-use (EoU). Versatility ensures adaptability to different PKM styles, while transferability enables seamless data migration. Longevity and security safeguard against tool instability and privacy breaches. EoU is about everything that enhances user experience, from interface design, to connectivity, to cloud-based capacities, and more.

Regarding PKM systems, while specialized tools may suit specific methodologies, beginners benefit from more flexible options allowing personalization. My permeable boundaries model of PKM emphasizes this by highlighting the need for tools that facilitate visibility and interconnection between information categories.

Ultimately, while the abundance of PKM tools can be daunting, understanding these key criteria can help new PKMers find the tool that works best for their evolving needs.


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Hi there! I’m Odin Halvorson, a librarian, independent scholar, film fanatic, fiction author, and tech enthusiast. If you like my work and want to support me, please consider becoming a paid subscriber for as little as $2.50 a month!


References

Tiago Forte (Director). (2022, May 26). Top 68 apps to take digital notes (2022). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OywdK-GIDnw

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