Why should knowledge management matter?

I had already planned on making the first few posts of my blog about how I eventually set up the whole thing. This was partly because I would have something to quickly write about while it was still fresh in my mind, but also so I could stick to a habit of writing. I don’t really have a schedule in mind for how often I intend to post here (yet), but I’m hoping that with these first few technical posts I can get in the swing of it better.

While writing this I quickly realised I had a lot more to say! There is a backstory here, a process to the madness that ends in my writing setup so I will have to break this up into pieces now. This is the first post in a multi-part series about my ‘writing environment’ which itself is rather broad since I jump between multiple programs and also work across different platforms. I own a Windows machine but oddly in the office I’ve always been given MacOS. While that doesn’t make much difference in terms of this setup, it has meant that I’ve had to find systems that were cross platform from the start. A lot of trial and error has gone into what I’m still developing here but my current setup is in many ways sustainable (for me at least).

The breakdown

Everything that I mention in this series can be repurposed as you like, these platforms are all FOSS after all. I plan on covering a number of topics ahead with some posts being about the build up and background, while others more technical. Since my approach towards writing and ultimately knowledge management are tied into developing your own ethos I see this series as jumping between research and life skills. Hopefully whoever reads it may find some benefit. Here’s a breakdown of how I see this unfolding:

Some additional content I plan to work on ahead around Obsidian and workflows include using Obsidian for pedagogy, as a student, and also as a cross collaborative research hub with Git.

The woes and wants of knowledge management

In my last post I went on about how there is this pressure on academics to write and continue to write in their fields all moving towards that one point of unique knowledge contribution. Having a good clean writing setup that works for you accentuates that experience making it (a) worth while, and (b) dare I say enjoyable. Not that writing isn’t fun for some people, but when it comes to academic writing it can get dry. It all starts by being able to gather information that you’ve collected through research.

A trusty notebook and pencil served me well for years and still do. I did always find myself hesitant when taking notes because I would know that down the line I would forget about this note. To me the act of writing something down is in effect adding it to a short-term memory, not necessarily something that I will return or be reminded of. Like many others I too had notebooks full of content that was never realised. Knowledge management starts from there and in most cases often ends there as well which where systems like the one I’m describing today may come into play.

There are several such systems with the more popular one being the Zettelkasten approach. I just can’t manage that, I find it it taxing and complex for my brain to keep track of! To those who have, I see that as impressive and I’m very certain you’ve reached a point of efficiency that is almost machine like. Those who are not aware of the zettelkasten approach, it was developed by a social scientist Niklas Luhmann in an attempt to over power his productivity.1 I’m a very patient person in most cases, but this approach was beyond me.

Having a penchant to tinker and get slightly obsessed with the process (as I often do), will certainly help when setting up a writing space that is for all purposes designed to be efficient. That level of tinkering was needed for zettelkasten though the redundancy of tasks made me feel less productive personally. Perhaps I approached it incorrectly and maybe down the line I might try again but in the way I practiced it a zettelkasten approach did not feel necessary; in that regard I’d like to think I’m somewhere on the edge of this knowledge management spectrum. What I needed was a system that was efficient and worked for my needs without the complexity of having to manage it as well. For some that might be as simple as setting up a Medium account or maybe Blogspot (that is a still a thing right?) with a content management system, for others it may very well be something as focused as Luhmann’s approach. For me it needed to be more bespoke and almost automated.

Does anything beat a good typewriter? (Source)

The perfect setup does not exist

I’ve gone back and forth multiple times with what the perfect setup is and I even wrote about it before in my post-PhD post, a rather emotional read if I’m being honest with not enough information on my actual setup! I do now realise after testing so many different approaches that the perfect setup for anything at all simply does not exist. It’s important to accept that. You will be constantly tinkering, forever changing, forever dissatisfied with what you have. But for the moment it will work. There will always be a better version of that software or alternative out there and being ready and accepting of that is key.

My interest in setting up the best writing environment started in my Master’s, I had a lot of writing to do and Word was nasty (still is). I found the wonders of Markdown around then having only ever used it in forums made in phpBB (does anyone remember that?), now its usage was popping up in lots of applications. GitHub of course had always used MD but I wasn’t a programmer until much later so I wouldn’t have known. I used Ulysses throughout my MA and loved every bit of it, right up to the point when they decided to adopt a subscription-based model for what is a simplified writing app. The business opportunity aside this was around the time when subscription-based-everything was popping up and if the comments section of this post by the app developers is something to go by it clearly did not sit well with more than just me. I couldn’t get on board with that no matter how much I loved the software, it was at the end of the day a writing application and without the bells and whistles did what Notepad could do. This company-centric over consumer-centric approach is probably an article on its own, but is the reason why we have a Web 3.0 push towards transparency and decentralisation.

I had some rebound after Ulysses jumping to Atom for a while then other similar software.2 I even tried Notion for a bit and soon realised that it didn’t click. My PhD was entirely done in Atom, every paper, review, poster, and more that I wrote at the time used a custom setup with Pandoc and MD in Atom. This was until I found Obsidian towards the end of my PhD. I really wish I had found this earlier on as I believe it would have changed my approach towards note taking and knowledge management significantly. I also wouldn’t have had to deal with Atom crashing so much on. I even went rouge in the middle of my journey to find the perfect writing setup and going full text-only in Vim and Emacs and the learning curve hit me hard, I can assure you I’m never strolling down that road again.

Now I use Obsidian every day, for teaching purposes, research, this blog, other writings, musings, and more. I’m constantly learning about automating steps as well at a comfortable pace, which is partly why I think this constitutes as close to a perfect setup as I can get right now. The other methods I used were either too restrictive, heavy learning curves, required too much tinkering, or just didn’t appeal to me.

The purpose of knowledge management

This first post in the series is definitely more rant than guide, but is also necessary because as academics we have an obligation to retain information as much as disseminate. Back in my Master’s I had not thought I would have gone down the road of academia, I was even offered to continue but I couldn’t foresee a path. I wanted to return to industry in my homeland, but Pakistan has always been a difficult market to get into and the doors that opened were different to what I had anticipated. Managing your knowledge is akin to managing your own life in that way. Some things you collect might move into rabbit holes or end up in dead ends while others might birth connections. It is an ethos you develop over time that fits to your rhetoric of what is knowledge and how it should be managed. After all, how do you retain information? Is it a diary you keep? A notepad or some scraps of paper you’ve collected over time? We retain information in many ways though very little sticks.

People who follow the zettelkasten approach follow that mantra that retention of information is key to productivity. I don’t see it like that, to me thats like the Chinese Room Argument. You can have a dictionary of content but it would be meaningless unless context is applied and maintained. That is where I believe an effective knowledge management system comes into play, and is the kind of system I’ve attempted to develop. One with specific purpose beyond retention and towards meaning making.

That has been a central premise of much of my own work around design and more-than humanness, the purpose of good design and approaching meaningful futures. Across the many years that I’ve been experimenting with different approaches towards knowledge management, I think meaning has always been missing. The purpose has always been retention and it never worked for me. Why is it now that my Obsidian vaults are making sense to me? It certainly has something to do with how the software is elegantly positioned towards tinkering but not in an aggressively programmer focused way. That’s what I like about Obsidian, you don’t need to be a programmer to be able to create automated processes in your workflow for instance, because someone in the community has prepared a plugin to help with that!

The current setup

There are multiple cogs to this machine and I will be breaking down each part of the setup in coming posts, but this is where I currently am with my ‘perfect-ish’ setup. Obsidian works in vaults which is a fancy name for root folders, this blog is part of a separate vault as is my teaching and research work. There is cloud backup as well as Git facilitated repositories for both collaborative work and automation where needed. I have other vaults as well but this series will focus mostly on these three. This diagram shows how it all works as an overview

flowchart TB A(Vault); B(Vault); C(Vault) Aa(Student DB); Ab(Pedagogy); Ac(Courses DB) Ba(Concepts); Bb(Writing); Bc(Supervision) Ca(Content); Cb(Structure) Cb-.->id1([Source Git Repo]) Ca-.->id2([Public Git Repo]) Bb-.->id3([Collaborative Git Repo]) subgraph Blog direction LR C-->Ca & Cb end subgraph Research direction LR B-->Ba & Bb & Bc end subgraph Teaching direction LR A-->Aa & Ab & Ac end Teaching & Research===>id((Cloud))

Each vault is self contained and I normally don’t need to have them mixing together, though with Obsidian I can cross-access them if I want to. Obsidian’s UI is simple and to the point, at the same time there is enough room for making it purposeful. There is an additional layer of automation happening within the vaults themselves to support my workflow, things like maintaining similarly data across for fetching and searching notes. It isn’t until each vault is opened and worked in that things start making sense and the connections come together. The need for manual retention is removed through using plugins like Projects, DB Folder, and Dataview all I’ll be exploring in a future Obsidian focused post. There are also some quality of life plugins on top of these to take the vaults from being simple text oriented databases to powerful content creation engines.

I was more or less trying to achieve this same thing through Atom before but was unsuccessful. Ulysses did long-form writing quite well though was not very useful for other everyday work. Atom did several things well but nothing well enough. Obsidian on the other hand gives me enough freedom to actually start managing knowledge, an opportunity to learn from what I’ve gathered. The difference is night and day at times.

Is knowledge management needed?

A difficult question in the end. Everyone has a particular workflow that fits them well. I’ve gone through several and I’m still evolving this one. What I have understood in this time is that retention is not the key but management is, being able to make the connections between gathered knowledge is what matters. A tool like Obsidian might not be for everyone, and it shouldn’t either. For many a notebook, some post-its, a pencil all works well enough. Once I had started teaching the need to maintain a record of my work became more evident. Keeping track of students for efficient feedback as much as understanding what a decentralised perspective towards pedagogy could be. As an academic I need to write about my pedagogy, I need to write about other things beyond as well. Seeing connections is difficult at times and I hope the current workflow I have is sustainable enough to ease that difficulty. The need for knowledge management should emerge from the intent you have, for me it’s teaching, research, and learning. For others it could be anything from keeping track of your life to finally writing that novel you haven’t touched for so long.

  1. More on Niklas Luhmann here ↩︎

  2. Sadly the hackable development environment has been archived ↩︎