Managing your BrainOur brains are wonderful devices for keeping track of information. They are also remarkable sense-making machines, finding patterns in seemingly disparate bits of data. In the information age, however, and in the burgeoning knowledge economy, we find our brains outstripped by their own inventions, their own discoveries, and their own creations. We have invented devices that are capable of capturing, generating, and storing more information than any one human can consume, let alone leverage to personal advantage. We have all experienced that moment of perfect epiphany at the wrong place, with the wrong tools—that perfect epiphany that becomes a nagging lost memory because our brains are constructed to hold only a finite number of elements in a queue. It has been argued that Leonardo Da Vinci was the last man who knew everything. With the rapid pace of discovery during the later Renaissance and beyond, especially after the advent of publishing, technology marched inevitably toward today’s overwhelming information experience. Yet Da Vinci could not know all as well, and he knew that. In mirror-reversed script, with delicate and intricate drawings, Da Vinci kept notebooks that detailed his discoveries, his insights and his interpretations on topics as diverse as art and nature, sculpture and fluid dynamics, weaponry and biology.

Davinci - Capture ThoughtsUntil recently, most people captured their personal knowledge in much the same way as Da Vinci: on scraps of paper sometimes haphazardly organized, sometimes meticulously so, as a repository for personal use. Even the most meticulous sometimes fail to find a tidbit of desperately sought knowledge as they comb their collections.

Even Leonardo Davinci nedded to capture his thoughts externally through words and images.

Now, however, we need not organize our knowledge in one dimension. We need not choose category over time, nor lose the subtle classifications of our data. With personal devices and innovative software, we can now capture our personal thoughts with incredible fidelity and clarity, and we can do so almost anytime, anywhere. More importantly, we can retrieve that information rapidly along any of the vectors it represents, from time to concept, from collaborator to location.

The iPhone, the iPad, and the personal computer represent a trifecta of devices that permit individuals to manage their personal knowledge along a continuum of convenience without a loss of access.


The iPhone and iPad are both highly sophisticated knowledge capture devices, and a number of very strong knowledge capture tools have already entered the market in the form of apps. Good knowledge capture tools facilitate the acquisition and storage of a wide range of data types: from text to images (drawings and pictures), to video and auditory information. It is unlikely that a diarist will only use an iOS device to record their personal experience. So, the best tools will include the ability to save content through a web service like iCloud, Box or Dropbox—or as a fall back, e-mail.

Evernote has proven to be, time and again, the best knowledge capture tool on the market. Evernote’s general utility has already been established, so I won’t go into a full review here. In the context of personal knowledge capture, its cross-platform delivery, ability to capture rich text and sound, along with its tags and organization features, make it powerful, yet it remains easy to use. Evernote gets around its most clear deficiency, handwritten notes, by supporting the attachment of images from the iOS photo library. The acquisition of Skitch addresses annotation for Mac users, and hopefully that technology will migrate to iOS and PCs in the future. This acquisition indicates that Evernote is not only the current tactical leader, but the strategic leader as well.


If your knowledge is already printed out or otherwise captured on paper, consider JotNot Scanner Pro for the iPhone, which quickly captures what is on paper and stores good quality images on the iPhone.

NotifyYou may also want to complement Evernote with Notify. Notify supports freehand sketching as well as PDF annotation. It exports to various repositories like Dropbox, but it also exports to Evernote. For Evernote users this means dropping another $1.99, but that is a small price to pay for enhanced features.

Notify supports freehand sketching and works as a nice complement to Evernote.

If you prefer less linear forms of notetaking, I recommend iThoughtsHD or iMindMap, the two best mindmapping tools on iOS. (See Dan’s detailed review of mindmapping tools in the July-August 2011 issue of iPhone Life magazine.)

Process Knowledge is a special case of knowledge capture that includes time and sequence as key elements of its metadata. One of the most sophisticated tools is Podio, a cloud-based process development tool that specifically targets execution on the iPad. Unlike other social software that concentrates on Facebook-like streaming, Podio offers a rich, end-user accessible development environment for capturing processes and procedures and turning them into web apps. Once the process knowledge is codified, it can be accessed via the Podio app. If you want to just draw flowcharts rather than make your knowledge executable, I recommend freehand drawings in Notify or the expensive, but sophisticated, OmniGraffle for more refined drawings.


The iOS platform is ideal for personal learning. A wide variety of apps offer either portals to content, or proprietary content access. Proprietary apps include Wired, PBS, NPR, the Economist and BusinessWeek. More open content aggregators include TED, Khan Academy and iTunes University. ITunes University also provides audio content, as does NPR and audio books through iBooks. And then, of course, every eReader platform from Kindle to Inkling has found a home on iOS.

But content alone is not enough for personal knowledge management. In practice, learning environments need to support personal notes, highlights, and ideally, sharing. Although the platforms mentioned in the previous paragraph do have the ability to deliver content, they aren’t part of integrated learning system. One of the coolest features for personal knowledge management is the highlight and notes function on Amazon’s Kindle, which also exposes community highlights to the reader. As a reader starts to doze, the Kindle can rekindle focus through crowdsourced highlights that help the reader skip less relevant passages.


Learning is both a personal and a social activity. Personal knowledge management focuses on the individual aspects of learning. An aspect of social learning comes from reading, watching, or listening to content, exactly as previously described in personal learning. Unlike personal learning, where the learner selects the content he or she wants to assimilate, social learning usually involves others suggesting sources of learning, and then augmenting that learning through social interaction. For organizations that use Yammer, or SalesForce customers using Chatter, those tools have iOS clients that extend their PC-based interactions models to iOS devices. I am, for instance, a member of a learning community that uses Yammer, and I often engage the community, as a learner and an educator, on my iPhone or iPad.


livescribepenOne of the best accessories for the iPad and the iPhone is the LiveScribe Echo smart pen. If you already own an iOS device, people may ask why you need a digital pen. The answer is usability. First, the Echo can take notes much less intrusively than an iPad. Despite great strides in digital ink capture, the iPad is not ideal for handwritten notes, even with a stylus. IOS devices don’t capture small details well except under extreme zoom, which trades off context for precision. With an Echo, you do what you have been doing since before kindergarten: you write on a piece of paper (albeit special “dot” paper). The pen tracks everything you write and listens to everything you hear. The pen supports uploading to a PC or Mac. The resulting Pencast, as it is called, can be saved online, where the iOS Pencast app can play it back. Another advantage of the Echo is synchronized data capture with sound, creating context sensitive notes. Tapping on a note replays the sound being recorded at the time of the note. This works in Pencasts and with the pen itself. Microsoft OneNote is the only comparable contextual notes taker, but its iOS version doesn’t support this feature.

The Livescribe Echo smart pen records and syncs sounds and notes, and you can play back the resulting "Pencast" through the Pencast app.

Other accessories you will want to have handy include a keyboard. I use the Kensington rechargeable Bluetooth Portfolio keyboard that doubles as a case. Although I miss the shift key on the right side of the keyboard, it provides a better experience than typing long notes on the virtual keyboard.

I would also recommend a stylus. I find the Kensington Virtuoso has a better feel than the Pogo. Some apps, like Wacom’s Bamboo and Notify, support wrist recognition to make handwriting easier, but it is by no means perfect. Regardless, a stylus proves to be a more natural note-taking companion.


If you are interested in personal knowledge management, experiment at first with free versions of various apps, or be willing to spend a little to learn. But in the end, pick one or two tools and stick with them. I can tell you from personal experience that if you spend your time evaluating tools rather than capturing knowledge, much of what you know will be lost in your search for the ultimate tool. Start getting what you know into a tool that is good enough. As long as your tool of choice allows you to export it into some common format, pick an app and start seeing how capturing what you know can benefit how you work. Also optimize for the kind of knowledge you capture. If you are primarily writing text or recording audio, then Evernote is probably all you’ll need. But if you annotate images, sketch. or otherwise have a more visual bent, then you will need to complement your textual notes with some other tool.


If you want a truly personal, responsive and mostly adequate personal knowledge management companion, the iPad, with a companion iPhone, is your best bet. Other tablets don’t have the variety of apps. PCs are too physically clunky and take too long to boot. The cloud is too vast and impersonal, though aspects of cloud computing do reduce the friction of replicating knowledge repositories. We are not quite to the point of Apple’s still relevant Knowledge Navigator video, but the devices we have now move us well in that direction when it comes to capturing what we know and making it available to our future selves.




LivescribeKensington Virtuoso Stylus


KeyFolio Bluetooth Keyboard CaseLivescribe


LiveScribe echo SmartPen


Content Sources

Available as apps or as syndicators of content available through the app store:






(iPad Only: Free,


(Free,; iPad version:



Khan Academy



(Free,; iPad version:


(Free,; iPad version:


January-February 2012
At Work
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