Nuggets about Nuggets across 38 years

To review what I’ve done on the topic of information nuggets, I’ve been trawling through the PAWDOC Index and files. The earliest example of sidelined text that I can find in my document collection was from October 1981 when I was working at the National Computing Centre. I can’t remember why I started to do it – but it may well have been prompted by the method that NCC’s Chief Editor, Geoff Simons, used to construct his books. He explained to me that he read everything about a subject, identified key points and put them on Post-it notes which he stuck on the wall. When he was ready to write, he rearranged the Post-its into separate sections and in sequence within the sections – and I saw examples of this in his office. At some point I started to employ this technique to construct the best practice books I wrote at NCC – but using the word processor on our new Zynar Office System to assemble and organise the key points. Sidelining text was an obvious way to identify key material to feed into that process.

Around 1994 I started talking with City University academics Clive Holtham and David Bawdon with a view to undertaking a joint project on ‘The Paperless Office Worker’. A key strand of this work would involve me digitising my PAWDOC collection. Extracts from emails between us in the early part of 1994 included the following:

Email from Clive Holtham: ‘….I don’t record each document as Paul does, but file at a quite detailed level. What I am conscious of is how much I forget about what I already have. The equivalent of underlining is important – we need to consider something more than keywords to store with each piece.’

Reply from Paul Wilson ‘…I agree with needing to deal with the underlining problem. I have sidebars on most of my material – they are the information nuggets; but I don’t know how much use they would be out of context.’

Email from Paul Wilson: ‘… with reports , papers etc. I usually mark the nuggets of info within them – presumably these are the bits of information I really want.’

The collaboration with City University proved very productive: Clive Holtham introduced me to a product Manager in Fujitsu who loaned me a scanner; and to the owner of a small company called DDS who loaned me the Paperclip document management software. Soon I was scanning my existing paper documents and new ones as they arrived. In January 1997 I issued my 3rd briefing note on these activities and included the following towards the end of the four page document:

Despite the close relationship between filing and information use, contemporary filing systems provide little other than title and index fields to support the knowledge acquisition, synthesis and use process. Filing systems, it seems, are there just to store items and to aid their retrieval. Unfortunately, the personal knowledge acquisition, synthesis and use process is not supported adequately outside filing systems either. Some standalone packages do exist, but they are not intended to be used in a day to day manner for personal knowledge acquired in documents, electronic files and other artefacts. In fact, even the need for such support is not widely recognised.

It is not yet clear to me what support could be most beneficial. However the clues are littered throughout the practices of knowledge workers like myself. For example, whenever I read articles, papers and reports I always mark the good bits – the nuggets of information. These are key points which I particularly want to augment the knowledge in my brain. Sometimes when I have been researching a topic I collect together all the nuggets I can find, categorise them and reorder them, and synthesise a new view of the topic in question. Unfortunately, like the magnesium nodules on the floors of the deep ocean, huge numbers of nuggets now litter my filing system unseen and inaccessible. I hope they are in my brain and that they have been used to develop my current state of thinking – but I’m not so sure that their huge potential has been fully exploited.

For my filing activities to really start adding value I need tools which can record those nuggets as I consume and index each item, and which can enable me to reorganise those nuggets, add more nuggets, and synthesise new nuggets, in the process of actively developing my ideas. Such tools would, of course, maintain the links to the original source material stored in my files. And my files would become a combination of original source material and the representations of my developing thoughts and ideas.

Now that I am confident that I have the paper scanning and electronic file indexing activities under reasonable control, it seems high time to start addressing the critical area of information use and its role in knowledge management.

These are the earliest mentions I can find of information nuggets in the PAWDOC collection – and they give no indication of where I picked up the concept from. In fact I can only find one published mention of the term and that was in the Lotus Notes-oriented magazine ‘Groupware and Communications Newsletter’ from April 1998 in which one Ted Howard-Jones gave a brief description of a service implemented by a major financial institution to capture competitive information. He wrote:

‘Called Report-It!, this service captures knowledge using a secure voice-mail system and delivers categorised information directly to the desktops of office-bound managers and competitive information professionals. These nuggets of professional information are disseminated via Notes.’

The use of the term Knowledge in this article, and in my briefing paper mentioned above, reflected the fact that, in the late 1980s, the term Knowledge Management started to became fashionable and by the late 1990s had become a holy grail of IT Professionals, Management Consultants, and Academics. The first mention of the term in the PAWDOC Index appears in 1990, and occurs in a further 137 Index entries from then to 2016. The company I worked for (Computer Sciences Corporation – CSC) was a global computer services organisation with tens of thousands of employees worldwide. Its involvement in the Knowledge Management topic came from three angles: first, its clients started to ask about it and how to do it; second, its consultants and salesmen saw it as a potential source of revenue; and third, its employees and management began to think that they needed it internally to improve the effectiveness of the business. Hence, as a consultant in the UK end of the business, I was aware of or got involved in:

  • A number of initiatives to develop an offering or information for clients, including:
    • the development of a KM service by CSC Netherlands in 1990;
    • discussions with CSC UK Management Consultants who were developing KM propositions, in 1996-8;
    • the definition and design of a KM service by CSC UK personnel to address opportunities in a number of clients including ICI Paints, LUCAS Engineering, John Menzies and United Distillers, in 1996-7;
    • the publication a CSC Research Services Foundation report on KM in 1998;
    • news of CSC’s Global Knowledge Management services, in 2001.
  • The development of such systems for clients (primarily using web pages on intranets), including:
    • a presentation to ICI Paints in 1992;
    • the development of systems for KM and for a web-based ‘Gazateer’ of all KM, architecture and other organisational information, for the Nokia SCC – a new organisation being set up by CSC UK for Nokia, in 1997;
    • the design and population of a web-based KM system for Dupont Agriculture’s architectural components, in 1998.
  • the development and use of internal CSC solutions, including:
    • attendance at internal CSC workshops on developing an organisational learning infrastructure in 1996;
    • the development of an improvement process for CSC’s new application development organisation that was being designed and built from scratch, in 1998;
    • the design of a practical KM programme for CSC UK’s reorganised Consulting & Systems Integration unit, in 1999;
    • knowledge management work being done for BAE, in 1999;
    • an internal Community of Interest on the subject of Personal Knowledge Management, in 2001.

Of course, my rather lowly personal filing perspective had to be rapidly expanded as I entered the Knowledge Management (KM) arena to accommodate both high level Management Consultancy notions of ‘Intellectual Capital’ and the distinction between Knowledge and Information; and the practical need to derive benefits from an investment in KM by effectively sharing the knowledge that had been acquired. Indeed, one of my contributions to the internal Community of Interest mentioned in the last bullet point above seems to herald a change in my thinking. My opening sentence reads:

‘Since collaborating with everyone in this shared space I’ve had my eyes opened to the concept that KM is all about enabling people to find things and work together, as opposed to the idea that KM is all about nailing down bits of knowledge and providing it to people. I realise that there is significant crossover between the two approaches – but nevertheless giving priority to one or the other will result in significantly different activities.’

During the 1990s I learnt a great deal about what people thought Knowledge Management was, and also about the powerful potential of the new web technology to support KM. However, throughout this period I don’t recall any specific conversations or documents about dealing with underlined, sidelined, or highlighted text. Indeed, by the time I completed the draft of the paper summarising my PAWDOC findings in June 2001, it seems that my ideas on the subject had advanced no further than that reported above. The paper was published in the journal Behaviour & Information Technology (BIT), and addressed the subject as follows in the section on ‘Areas of Investigation and Summary Findings’:

Q27. How can an electronic filing system be used to develop and use knowledge?

  • Include substantive information in the index entries, for example phone numbers, book references, and expense claim amounts.
  • Identify the nuggets of information (i.e. the valuable bits) when you first read a document
  • Capture and structure the nuggets into the overall nugget-base at the same time as indexing the item

Status: ideas formed

Q28. What is the best way to capture and structure information nuggets?

Probably by using a Concept Development tool. Some initial prototyping has been done using the Visual Concepts package and the eMindMaps package.

Status: ideas formed

Q29. Is it feasible and practical to capture and structure information nuggets as well as indexing items?

Status: not started

Q30. Is it worthwhile building and developing an information nugget base?

Status: not started

The Concept Development prototyping mentioned in the answer to Q28 above probably started in April 2001 when I acquired a free copy of the eMindMaps software, and by the end of 2001 I had started making MindMaps of books on esoteric topics such as the Egyptian pyramids and the origin of Atlantis. I have no record of my detailed intentions in doing this, but I guess I wanted to experience the process of recording all the nuggets I found in a book – and then to explore what could be done to integrate and exploit the material from several different MindMaps. In all, I made MindMaps of 19 books over a two year period; but that’s as far as I got. At the end of 2001 I started a new job in bid management and my energies were increasingly taken up with managing very intensive bids, with documenting the bid process, and with operating a Lessons Learned programme. I had no time to pursue these information nugget ideas any further.

This concludes my review of my previous activities in the use of information nuggets. The questions I posed in the 2001 BIT paper still remain largely unanswered, and the operation of the PAWDOC system has not provided any further insights on the subject since then. However, the existence of the sidelined documents, and of the 19 MindMaps, do provide an opportunity to undertake some rudimentary practical work to explore if the information nuggets identified were memorable and of any use. Subsequent entries will outline the methods that will be used to undertake these investigations, and will report on the results.

Knowledge Nugget Endeavours

In 1981 I was working in the newly formed Office Systems team in the UK National Computing Centre, and I was interested in how the new technology could support the management of an individual’s office documents. So, a colleague and I decided to experiment with our own documents. This was the start of a still-running practical exploration of how to manage personal documents using digital technology.

It was my practice to highlight key text with a side line as I read documents, and, as my document collection grew, I began to wonder how I could make explicit use of this very specific information. No doubt the act of highlighting was in itself helping me to assimilate documents; but I wasn’t sure if all the highlighted facts were being retained in my brain and being used to develop new concepts.

During the 1990s, the trendy new topic of Knowledge Management emerged which provided a recognised arena in which I was able to explore these ideas. Sometime during this period, I latched onto the term ‘nugget of information’ (the first published mention of this in my filing index is in an article by one Ted Howard-Jones in the March 1998 issue of the Groupware and Communications Newsletter). My attempts to relate lowly personal filing to the Knowledge Management field eventually fizzled out in the face of much sexier concepts such as an organisation’s ‘intellectual capital’. However, in the early 2000s, I did make a specific attempt to see if I could use Concept Mapping software to capture nuggets, by applying it to 19 new age books on the pyramids and the like; but that is where my knowledge nugget endeavours ended.

Now that I’m trying to find a home for my document collection, and to identify the findings from its long term operation, it seems a timely moment to review this particular aspect, to do some practical work on the nuggets I’ve identified over the years, and to draw some conclusions on the topic.