Personal Toolkit for Knowledge Workers

Where your key career asset is your knowledge skills and experience, then these should be the focus of how you manage your day-to-day work and long-term career. In 1999, I developed the 'Knowledge networkers toolkit' which was published as Chapter 5 in the book Knowledge Networking: Creating the Collaborative Enterprise. It in turn was based on some research I had commissioned from Barbara Farbey of London Business School into what makes individuals effective in a knowledge-intensive environment. This page gives an outline of the toolkit. In time, I hope to provide an updated and more user-friendly version of this toolkit than that in the book.

Key Success Factors

The most effective knowledge workers are those who manage a combination of key success factors well. These are the five resources that surround the box 'work' in the diagram below:

personal success factors

Supporting work are your intellectual capability and social/emotional characteristics. But driving all of these are your personal values. Most of these supporting factors are deep seated, often inherited and which tou can change only slowly over time. The toolkit, therefore, starts with knowing yourself, your key values and from these then addresses how you plan and manage the five key resources.

Know Yourself

It's time to be reflective and understand what has driven your successes (and failures) in the past:

  • What are you proud of having accomplished and done well throughout your life?
  • What do you particularly enjoy doing? What are you passionate about?
  • What particular characteristics of work do you like, e.g. analysis, communicating with others, creative work etc?

Write down the answers. You may find it useful to draw a timeline showing your highs and lows is a useful tool for this. There are, of course, any number of value tools around (such as the Hall-Tonne Values Inventory) that lets you go into this aspect in much finer detail, but I find that picking out just a handful of core values is good enough for most purposes.

In addition, looking at your highlights, what were the circumstances - working environment/location, type of organisation (and culture), boss, coworkers, business funciton, market segment, personal situation etc. do you thrive in best? This will be a key filter for defining your ideal job and your next career step.

Organise Your Tasks

A good starting point for managing you key success factors should be to identify what tasks you need to do and what priority to give them. You should probably start with a personal plan, which may be a mix of your explicit job plan, but flavoured with your perosnal life and career objectives. The more professional and knowledgeable you are, and certainly the more senior you are, the more discretion you have in how you go about your work tasks, or even whether you do them at all - it may be more effective to delegate or outsource. In thinking about your work tasks and how to tackle them:

  • Consider the relative intensity of thinking, information processing and need to communicate with others
  • Will the communication involve face-to-face meetings or would email, or telephone suffice?
  • List your tasks and rate them against the above characteristics.
  • Consider which tasks are best done individually which are best done in teams.
  • Make good estimates of the time needed to carry out certain tasks - analyse your past time records (see below) to make your estimates realistic.
  • Consider which tasks are best done individually which are best done in teams.
  • Make sure you include personal development activities in your task list, such as learning and developing your network.

Once you have a task list, which will evolve over time (and quite often with unanticipated frequency), you can now address your next key resource - time.

Manage Your Time

Time is a precious resource. Unlike knowledge, which can be reused, time once past is irretrievable. Effective workers know how they spend their time and what they achieve during it.

  • Review regularly your use of time: plan vs. actual (even though I am mostly retired, I still monitor an annual, quarterly and weekly timeplan).
  • Don't confuse time spent with results; it is important to focus on outputs and outcomes, not inputs
  • Remember to distinguish the urgent from important, as described in Stephen Covey's book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
  • Think in terms of blocks of time (it get very disruptive if you are context switching every five minutes. You may have 3-5 year block for career planning, a 6 months to one year project period, then monthly, weekly, and day plans.
  • Develop your time planning consistent with your thinking styles, best times of day etc.

You've probably already been on a time management course and know in general what works best for you. Stephen Covey is quite critical of time management systems that concentrate on activities, and suggests a focus on relationships and results, linking time on tasks to your objectives.

Whatever system you use, do take time, say at the end of each week or the beginning of a new one, to record, review and revise - you may be suprised at how your time gets frittered away on less important things, and you'll need to take firm steps to change your habits.

Managing Information and Knowledge

This is your unique and critical resource. The primary problem facing many knowledge workers is information overlaod. The sheer volume of emails, tweets and other communications received sometimes make it difficult to surface, but surface you must. Our Effective Email Guide gives some useful hints on managing your email more efficiently. There are now specialized consultancies who claim that with their training you can free up an additional 45 minutes a day.

But having mastered your inbox, there is much more you need to address in this category:

  • Clarify your information and knowledge needs - carry out your personal knowledge audit based around your tasks and needs.
  • Developing a sourcing strategy for these needs - how much will you search yourself or rely on others; bookmark your nest resource links.
  • Decide what you want 'pushed' at you (via email) and what you will 'pull' when you need it (just-in-time knowledge).
  • Work out how and when you will process information. Consider also what will you personally file and keep.
  • For what you keep, develop a personal filing system, with a well designed structure, that is appropriate with your work activities and areas of expertise.
  • Review and refine your information - it really is worth going through your files during the odd lunch hour, picking out nuggets and getting rid of information that is past its 'sell by' date (you could set up an automated 'alerting' system for 'review dates' on information.
  • Why not do an annual appraisal of your intellectual capital. Although your CV will cover your skills and experience, an IC statement goes beyond this and will help your ongoing career planning.

As a general rule, the less information you keep personally, the less the overhead of management, or of not being able to find it. If your organization has a good information/document management system and a good 'knowledge centre' then why duplicate the effort that others are doing for your benefit?

Communicate Effectively

Each of us spends a lot of time communicating, but how often do we step back and ask how effective we are at it? Are you using the best method for your communication? One study found that ineffective media were used in one third of all business communications.

A good starting point is to do a communications log for a short period, say over a few days or a week:

  • For each communication, list who initiated it, the medium used, its purpose, duration/length, degree of interactivity, outcome, and its effectiveness.
  • At the end of the period analyse your log.
  • Is there a pattern in those communications that were effective and those that were not?
  • Could similar or better outcomes be achieved in less time with different media?
  • Are there people with whom you should be communicating with more frequently but are not?
  • What is your preferred medium and style for receiving different classes of communications?

Nurture Your Network

Your personal network, which may run to hundreds of people, is the key to leveraging your knowledge and contribute to your success. Every person in it is a potential link to many more. It needs active managing. Here are some things you can do to maximize the usefulness of your network:

  • Understand the extent and shape of your network.
  • Determine how its composition might be strengthened. Is there other knowledge that you need access to where finding experts to join your network would be useful?
  • Consider the strenth and frequency of your immediate connections - are you utilizing them enough?.
  • For your closest connections, do you really know what motivates them and how you could be useful to them?
  • Keep your connections active. If you have not been in contact with an important member for a while, make a point of communicating with them.
  • Engage your network in some of your activities, even if you could do them by yourself.
  • Reciprocity and trust are the watchwords of effective networking. You get out what you put in.
  • Cultivate as part of your network people not directly involved in your work, in order to provide other kinds of practical or emotional support.

Although your company may have good internal networking capabilities, do make use of services such as LinkedIn, to keep in touch with professionals and colleagues in other organizations.

Other Resources

Depending on context, there are usually one or two other resources that also need good management. The most common ones are:

  • Your technology tools - especially your PC or your primary working device; are you proficient in basic functions (many professionals are self-taught and do not know the short-cuts and quick ways of accomplishing common tasks in software such as Microsoft Word). Are you synchronizing well what you have on your email contact list on your PC and your mobile phone or device? How safe and secure is the information you have stored on your various platforms? Have you worked out the optimum way of working such that you minimize duplication, know where everything is, and use your time on each device most efficiently?
  • Your workspace(s) - often overlloked, but one that can have a profound effect on your productivity. If you have control over basic conditions such as temperature, air flow, ventilation, lighting and outlook, you are more likely to work efficiently. More importantly are things you need easily accessible and quick-to-find? A good office will have a range of environments (thinking space, meeting rooms, 'caves and commons') to meet your various needs and moods. Working on the move or at home adds additional challenges. Above all, develop a consciousness for personal health and safety, including taking breaks and walk-abouts to avoid becoming too sedentary.

Last updated: 19th March 2011


Information managers: do we need them?
conference paper

A provocative question aimed at information managers about their careers in the era of knowledge management. It is address in this conference paper (PDF).


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