Why personal knowledge management matters for business development


This post is inspired by an exchange with Nick Milo, who runs Linking Your Thinking. If you want to learn more about personal knowledge management (PKM) and more about PKM’s within Obsidian, pay him a visit on his YouTube channel. Worth the time you’ll invest.

The inspiration was Nick’s Loom walkthrough video here (as usual with Loom, this link will work until it no longer works) in which he explained his ideas about the different ways in which people use a PKM and how that can evolve. In essence, throughout our lives and in different roles we approach PKM from different angles, depending on our specific needs. You need to go and see the Loom video, where he presents this model.

The above graphic is copyright ownership of Nick Milo at Linking Your Thinking

You can see my comment in the comments below the Loom video. They do require some more elaboration, hence this blog post.

Two stages of business development

I’m making a broad generalisation here, but in any business development there are two phases.

The first phase is the phase in which you want to conquer a market. This can be an existing market with incumbent players or a market that does not yet exist. Either way, the only way you will make a dent in the universe is by doing or offering something that creates a demand, a need, which is stronger than the need for what already exists. This is aptly called the offensive phase or the innovator or disruptor phase.

The second phase is the phase in which you want to defend your market. In this market, you are the or one of the incumbent players. You have made your dent in the universe and you want to continue benefiting from the position you have right now. If your market is an accessible market and a profitable market, someone else may want to gain access to that market, capturing market share you believe to be yours. You need to get defend that market share, which is why you are the incumbent defender of that market.

What role does knowledge management play?

Herein lies the rub, dear friends … it does not. Or not enough. But let’s assume that the business developer we are watching going through the motions is smart enough to realise his mission is not just right now, but for a long time to come.

What surprised me going through the exercise thinking about what a business developer would do, was that her or his behaviour would not be that different from an academic, at least in thinking about the markets.

If you haven’t, listen to Nick’s explanation here, then come back …

… you listened? Great.

The offensive business developer

The business developer wanting to conquer a market will start with looking for an idea which will allow a disruption of the market they seek to enter. Their use of a PMK will be aimed at Idea management. An idea as such is interesting for a market, but does not mean the market has been won. The idea needs to be understood, connected to other adjacent ideas and further developed. That is what Nick’s PIM quadrant shows. This is the area of pure creativity, where own ideas are worked on. The focus on the ideation is wide, ideally as wide as possible.

However, that is not where the offensive business developer ends. Once the initial ideas have been developed, the offensive developer will move to the use of the PKM as a memory management tool. When using his PKM als a PMM tool, he or she collects additional relevant knowledge and connects this to the ideas, fleshing them out. Think of this as adding market analyses done by third parties to the ideas present in the PKM. This is where the pure ideas meet other perspectives gathered by other people.

Once the offensive business developer has a complete view on the idea and the context in which this idea will be deployed, she or he can start writing, reorienting the use of their PKM to support writing management. This is where the different ideas and background information get combined in an overall story that makes sense to an outside investor or a business partner.

And off they go to conquer the market.

The defensive business developer

Now, let’s imagine our business developer has been successful. They conquered a market which they believe in based on their breakthrough ideas which they were able to connect to market related information and managed to convince investors to put money and trust is.

It is an interesting market. This market is so interesting that offensive business developers are chomping at the bit to get their hands on it. What does our business developer do? Now the approach will be different.

The business developer has a clear goal, and they will use their PKM to do productivity management. Their objective is to defend their market, and using a PKM as a tool for understanding, developing and advancing goals is a perfectly valid use for such a tool. Their focus in this phase is narrow, aimed at ensuring that offensive developers do not gain a foothold in that market.

The next use of their PKM will be comparable to the offensive developer, with a focus on memory management. However, collection here will not focus on understanding the market, because they know their own market, but on the offensive players trying to gain access to the market, and on regulation or other information which may help them block access.

A quick illustration: I once worked for a market incumbent faced with a group of new competitors. Our information collection was focused on acquiring all the supply chains which allowed production of the specific product, thus barring any competitors from entry. Hold the supply chain and you hold the market.

Finally, the defensive developer will use the information gathered to develop their internal business case, explaining which investments are needed where to ensure that access to the market becomes as difficult as possible or lock-in of clients in that market is as tight as possible.

The result, a business case, is the same, but the dynamic behind it is different.

Why building a PKM is so important for business development?

That explained, let’s return to the beginning of this article. As I said there, knowledge management and personal knowledge management does not play big enough a role in business development.

When you are moving, as a business, from your first offensive, market conquering positioning to your incumbent, market defending position, what you have to work with will be determined by what you have available to you in your system in terms of initial ideas and knowledge. In other words, the idea management and the memory management will determine your capability to contain a threat by a new, incumbent player and to pivot out of a choke hold they may try to get on you.

In the best of cases, your idea management has been fed throughout your work in that market, and where the offensive developers are going with their thinking, you have already been. The sad thing is that I see not enough of that thinking.

Once we get where we believe we should be going, a certain laziness tends to set in and we are largely unaware of potential threats or, if they are present, we tend to underestimate them. Cases in point? Here’s three:

In conclusion

Using a PKM as a tool for linking your thinking to the outside world, or, as some describe it, as a tool for making sense of the world around you, is not a waste of time. When you do this consistently, as a business developer, you will reap the long term benefits.

As I wrote in that final Loom comment to Nick:

“it is interesting to consider that when moving, as a business, from an offensive to a defensive positioning, the breath of the initial thinking available to and developed by the business developer during the offensive, disruptive phase will determine the scope of the potential she or he will be looking at when in the defensive phase. A PKM will therefore bring significant added value, even in a defensive phase, because of the breath of the development during the offensive phase.”

However, as I concluded, when is enough enough? What information have you gathered you can start working with in the years after? The answer … as much as you need, and as little as you can get away with. That choice is yours. I tend to err on the side of caution.