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We examine the concept of personal knowledge management using data drawn from our studies of digital nomads. We make two contributions: an empirical and conceptual development of knowledge management as it relates to independent workers and an advancement of social informatics that builds on Gibson's ecological perspective. Digital nomads provide an empirical basis to better understand how knowledge management is shifting from organization-centric, with its concomitant emphasis on organizational information systems to worker-centric, which relies on personal knowledge ecologies. We advance this concept as a combination of personal knowledge management activities and the digital technologies that support them. Our data make clear that individuals are the locus of personal knowledge ecologies, but these ecologies are embedded in a larger community of collaborators, clients, and peers who are often extensively mediated by digital technologies. This embedding and mediation are at the core of the sociotechnical arrangements that define the personal knowledge ecologies that we document. 2
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Personalization of Knowledge, Personal Knowledge
Ecology, and Digital Nomadism
Mohammad Hossein Jarrahi
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 200 Manning Hall, Chapel Hill, NC 27599
jarrahi@unc.edu
Gabriela Philips
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 100 Manning Hall, Chapel Hill, NC 27599
gabyp@live.unc.edu
Will Sutherland
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 100 Manning Hall, Chapel Hill, NC 27599
willsu@email.unc.edu
Steve Sawyer
Syracuse University, 344 Hinds Hall Syracuse, NY 13244
ssawyer@syr.edu
Ingrid Erickson
Syracuse University, 214 Hinds Hall Syracuse, NY 13244
imericks@syr.edu
Abstract
We examine the concept of personal knowledge management using data drawn from our
studies of digital nomads. We make two contributions: an empirical and conceptual
development of knowledge management as it relates to independent workers and an
advancement of social informatics that builds on Gibson’s ecological perspective. Digital
nomads provide an empirical basis to better understand how knowledge management is
shifting from organization-centric, with its concomitant emphasis on organizational information
systems to worker-centric, which relies on personal knowledge ecologies. We advance this
concept as a combination of personal knowledge management activities and the digital
technologies that support them. Our data make clear that individuals are the locus of personal
knowledge ecologies, but these ecologies are embedded in a larger community of
collaborators, clients, and peers who are often extensively mediated by digital technologies.
This embedding and mediation are at the core of the sociotechnical arrangements that define
the personal knowledge ecologies that we document.
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Introduction
Personal knowledge management (PKM) involves situated, individual-level work activities
through which workers develop ideas and meaning and make sense of work environments and
interactions with other actors. These activities typically yield a set of adaptive, personalized
sociotechnical systems that an individual worker uses to insure his or her productivity; these
systems are known as knowledge ecologies (Chatti, 2012). Here, we focus on the PKM activities
and ensuring knowledge ecologies of a specific set of workers: independent and mobile
knowledge workers --what others and we call digital nomads (Dal Fiore, Mokhtarian, Salomon,
& Singer, 2014; Nash, Jarrahi, Sutherland, & Phillips, 2018; Reichenberger, 2018). This framing
allows us to move beyond conceptualizations of knowledge management (KM) that emphasize
organization-centric approaches and the use of organizational information systems and more
fully embrace a perspective on KM that examines the intertwining of ICT (information and
communication technologies) affordances and sociotechnical practice (e.g., Alavi & Leidner,
2001; Hew & Hara, 2007; Orlikowski, 2002).
While organizations are still an important loci for KM, work-related activities are
increasingly personalized and take place more than ever in extra-organizational arrangements
(Winter, Berente, Howison, & Butler, 2014). This shift has occurred for at least two reasons.
First, flexible work arrangements such as teleworking and flexible work schedules have grown
rapidly in the last decade (Spinuzzi, 2015). In many instances, knowledge workers entering the
workforce now prefer the flexibility of nomadic and/or remote working (Vanderkam, 2014).
Second, because independent, project-centric work arrangements are on the rise (Barley,
Bechky, & Milliken, 2017), knowledge workers now have weaker connections with
organizations. The rise of online freelancing platforms such as Upwork, for example, mediates
digital gig work that is not only increasingly location-independent but also independent of
organizational culture, standards, or mission (Manyika et al., 2016). This personalization of
work goes hand in hand with the rise of personal and consumer technologies being used by
independent workers, both inside and outside of organizational boundaries.
To examine KM in the context of the rise of independent, decontextualized forms of
knowledge work, we draw from an empirical study of digital nomads. Digital nomadism is a
moniker used to represent a community of remote workers that mix travel and work, and as
such, can be understood as constant world travelers (Nash et al., 2018; Reichenberger, 2018).
Due to their extreme mobility and organizational independence, even across different kinds of
professions, digital nomads face common types of work uncertainty, such as unpredictability of
projects and lack of a physical workplace. More importantly for the work reported here, in
order to support this lifestyle nomadic workers live on their expertise and knowledge, making
PKM a core activity and skill. As such, the question this paper seeks to answer is: what are the
core PKM activities that enable digital nomads to leverage digital technologies in order to
construct a functioning knowledge ecology?
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This research makes two contributions. First, it conceptually develops key constructs of
KM relative to to the emerging sociotechnical dynamics of independent workers. This
treatment advances the field beyond the traditional context of the organization and the
assumed use of organizational information systems alone. It also marks the importance of
independent, contractual work and the increased reliance on personal technologies for
professional activities as a salient subject for KM research.
The second contribution advances social informatics research using an ecological
perspective, which builds from Gibson’s (1979) seminal work as well as the 30+ year stream of
scholarship that followed (Bødker & Klokmose, 2012; Davison et al., 2013; e.g., Jung,
Stolterman, Ryan, Thompson, & Siegel, 2008). Much of the early work in social informatics
analyzed the complex and paradoxical roles played by ICTs in organizational and institutional
contexts, examining computerization in work (Fichman & Rosenbaum, 2014) and the
mediational roles of ICTs in various knowledge-based work settings (e.g., Hara & Kling, 2006).
More recently, social informatics scholarship has focused on studies of knowledge and
technology (Fichman, Sanfilippo, & Rosenbaum, 2015). We bring together these trajectories,
focusing attention to KM and work a path that continues the tradition of critical analyses of
technology and information uses that define social informatics scholarship (Kling, 2007).
Relevant literature
Three bodies of literature bear directly on our study: KM (particularly PKM), digital
nomads and nomadic work, and the relevant work that draws on and extends the ecological
perspective on technologies.
Personal knowledge management
As noted, much of the contemporary KM scholarship has focused on organizational approaches
and the enterprise-level information systems that undergird them (Davenport, 2016; Pauleen &
Gorman, 2016). This approach is consistent with what Winter et al. (2014) outline as studying
“organizational containers.” As such, little is known about individual approaches to KM and how
individual workers creatively deal with the knowledge problems of their work (Cranefield &
Prusak, 2016). As Pauleen and Gorman (2016) argue, PKM differs significantly from commonly
held notions of organization-level KM, because PKM concerns the ways in which knowledge
workers maintain their currency and individual competitive advantage over time.
To date, KM scholars have not focused on the growing personalization of KM and the
rapid rise in uses of a range of personal (or at least non- or extra-organizational) technologies
for managing personal knowledge (e.g., Clemente & Pollara, 2005). Most of the nascent
literature on PKM is framed on defining activities. For example, Davenport (2016) presents
these as individualized activities that enable workers to support their creation, distribution, or
application of knowledge. Similarly, Razmerita et al. (2014) suggest the primary function of PKM
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activities is to facilitate the creation, organization, and sharing of personal knowledge. Pauleen
and Gorman (2016) suggest management, learning, communication, interpersonal skills and
use(s) of technologies as the primary PKM activities.
The research on Personal Information Management (PIM) also provides a useful
perspective on the strategies workers use to improve productivity and navigate contemporary
information spaces, such as the processes of storing, organizing, and retrieving (Barreau, 1995;
Kwasnik, 1989). More recently, Jones (Jones, 2007) shows that any one person’s information is
fragmented across multiple “information islands”. PIM and PKM are closely overlapping topics
(Świgoń, 2013), and Jones (2016) situates PKM as a subset of PIM based on the idea that
knowledge cannot be directly managed, rather, it can only be managed through information.
Research on PIM has a strong focus on the strategies of using information collections
and what Jones (2007) calls information items and information forms (e.g., Diekema & Olsen,
2014; Whittaker & Sidner, 1996). This attention to the ontological structures of information
means that even though there is an area of overlap with PKM, PIM scholars focus on tangibles
and ignore core topics in KM and PKM such as tacit knowledge, as these are hard to formalize in
words or numbers (Nonaka, Toyama, & Konno, n.d.; Razmerita, Kirchner, & Sudzina, 2009).
Strategies for finding, organizing, and retrieving information certainly bear on the issue of
digital nomadic work, especially in managing and sharing information through cloud storage
and managing information overload. However, our interest in this study is in how digital
nomads develop tacit or non-propositional information or what Buckland (1991) calls
“information as knowledge” rather than dealings with tangible information artifacts or what
Buckland (1991) refers to as information as “things”.
Digital nomads
Though the definition of “digital nomad” varies, most definitions agree that a digital
nomad is someone who has escaped the traditional office work environment by engaging in
digital work and by drawing on digital technologies (Erickson, 2017). Digital nomads are unified
most strongly by their motivation for living nomadically, which is, in almost every case, a desire
for travel and a sense of adventure, to live and work from anywhere in the world, and to be
independent of the traditional 9-to-5 workday and its designed-in lack of flexibility (Gussekloo
& Jacobs, 2016). This means that digital nomads blur and balance their professional lives with
personal and recreational time in order to accomplish a somewhat delicate state of ‘workation’
(Springer, 2017). That is, the commonality across digital nomads is their approach to work:
nomadicity is what they share, even as they pursue writing, or programming, or training as their
profession.
Digital nomads share some of the work practices of remote workers (such as those
described by Halverson (2004)); but may differ from the traditional remote workers in that they
are positioned at a unique crossroads of global adventure travel and nomadic work (Nash et al.,
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2018). Digital nomads have a passion for constant mobility and location-independence. Unlike,
traditional nomadic or remote workers, the pursuit of flexibility are inextricably tied to the
desire for exotic world travel. Digital nomads are continuously visiting new places to pursue
hobbies such as surfing or skiing, and/or to experience foreign countries and cultures
(Reichenberger, 2018). Digital nomads’ desire to change geographic locations and, thus, their
workspaces set them apart from more traditional nomadic workers, who may be required by
their employer or type of work to be mobile.
The ecological perspective
The conceptual underpinning of this work builds from Gibson’s ecological perspective
(Gibson, 1979). The premise of this perspective is that material objects in the world possess
varying affordances depending on the user and the situation in which the user finds him or
herself. Affordances are unique ways that social actors come to perceive and use an object or
technology, so affordances of a digital technology can be understood as particular ways
through which it helps argument and enable objectives and social practices (e.g., maintaining
social relationship with Facebook friends).
Like scholars in HCI, CSCW and other related intellectual communities, social informatics
scholars have drawn on an the ecological perspective to help theorize on networks of digital
artifacts, information behavior in context, and interactions with various communication and
social technologies (Bødker & Klokmose, 2012; Davison et al., 2013; Jung et al., 2008; Nelson,
Jarrahi, & Thomson, 2017).
We conceptualize digital nomad’s PKM activities and associated digital technologies as
comprising a knowledge ecology. These knowledge ecologies include multiple devices (e.g.,
mobile phones, tablets, laptops), each with specific interactivities and different forms of
breakdown (Jung et al., 2008). These devices (and other artifacts such as portable storage
devices, Wi-Fi hotspots, and printer hubs) may take on well-articulated roles within the ecology,
and there may be friction or competition between them to maintain those roles or positions
(Bødker & Klokmose, 2012). Nomadic workers introduce additional complexity to the ecology:
they are mobile, seek to carry out tasks across multiple spaces; they often work collaboratively
working with others who have different subjectivities and often their own digital ecologies
that need to mesh together so as to support interaction (Nelson et al., 2017).
The ecological perspective has been used as a vehicle to broaden examinations of singular
technologies or technology-mediated activities (Bødker & Klokmose, 2012; Davison et al., 2013;
Jung et al., 2008), and, in doing so, to provide for more holistic considerations of the
technology’s context its embeddedness in a larger ecology of social relations, physical
arrangements, cognitive engagements, and technological elements. The ecological perspective
focuses analytic attention to the connections among the disparate elements of a knowledge
ecology, providing a means to see that alignment is more than simply mirroring or
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synchronizing the affordances (Bardram, Jeuris, & Houben, 2015), because users may wish to
perform the same activities on multiple devices or may divide parts of a larger workflow
amongst different devices depending on how they perceive individual device affordances.
Central to the current articulations of the ecological perspective is a focus on activity,
which forefronts the constellation of practices, which are used to span the multiple
technologies within an ecology (Bardram et al., 2015; Bødker & Klokmose, 2012). Seen this way,
PKM activities, and the uses of various technologies to support and enable these activities, are
bound up together. A knowledge ecology emerges from the interactions among knowledge-
oriented activities of the worker, their uses of and affordances of multiple digital technologies
that support those activities. Finally, even though knowledge ecologies are individualized, they
can have implications for interactions among social actors and serve as resources for
collaborative practices.
Methods
To address the goal of this study, we utilized a methodology that allowed us to explore
both the structure of digital nomads’ digital ecologies as well as their patterns of assemblage
and use. The empirical base of this paper draws on two data sources: three online, English-
language digital nomad forums and 23 interviews with digital nomads. The sampling procedure
for both the forums and the interviewees was purposive and aimed at acquiring theoretical
saturation (Corbin, Strauss, & Others, 2008). The investigation of the online forums allowed us
to gain a comprehensive view of the issues relevant to the larger digital nomad community;
capturing data from three different forums helped us to avoid narrow reliance on any one
forum’s sub-community. Each forum was selected because it had a large population of users
who identified as digital nomads or expressed experiences as digital nomads. We also chose the
set of forums we did based on the inclusion of active discussion related to the use of
technology in dealing with situations of nomadic work.
The forum Nomad List0F
1 was developed by a prominent digital nomad and has become a
hub of digital nomad activity that includes both active discussion and an array of tools digital
nomads can use to find destinations. Within this larger site, we focused on the forum section,
nomadforum.io, where users introduce themselves, ask questions, and discuss different aspects
of nomadic work. We also chose to look at two popular loci for digital nomad conversation: a
Facebook group dedicated to digital nomad issues called Digital Nomads Around the World and
the Reddit forum (/r/digitalnomad). We sampled discussion in each of these forums between
2014 to early 2017, a period that corresponds with a rapid rise in traffic on all of these sites. In
sum, we collected 866 comments on the nomadforum.io site, 917 comments from the
Facebook group, and 1,088 comments from the Reddit forum.
1 https://nomadlist.com/forum
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We scanned the discussion data from each forum, starting from the most recent posts
and proceeding through older posts, to identify all posts that contained discussion content
related to working nomadically. Posts, which solely concerned travel or were focused on
discussion of a particular profession without mention of nomadic work issues were not included
in the subsample. As the coding process proceeded, new posts were iteratively identifies for
inclusion until no new themes appeared and a degree of theoretical saturation had been
accomplished.
We also conducted 23 interviews with digital nomads. Based on observation of the forum
data, we determined a number of factors that defined a digital nomad: (1) an interest in world
travel, (2) constant mobility in terms of workspace and location, and (3) working while
travelling. We solicited the participation of potential interviewees that satisfied these criteria
via online profiles on LinkedIn or in the forums we were following. All participants had some
attachment to the term ‘digital nomad’ that warranted contacting them, such as actively
posting about digital nomadism, running bloggings about digital nomadism, attending digital
nomad workshops or events1F
2, or identifying themselves on social media as digital nomads.
After verifying that that they did in fact live and work nomadically or had multiple years of
recent experience doing so (e.g., visiting multiple countries every year while working remotely),
we contacted 72 digital nomads and 23 agreed to be interviewed. While the participants
represent diverse professions (See Table 1), they share a centrality of nomadic work practices in
common (e.g., Czarniawska, 2014). Our interview protocol was designed to be semistructured;
it had four sections. One section contained questions about the participant’s profession and
their relationship with organizations. A second section included questions about the
technologies these nomads used to manage their work and documents. A third section focused
attention to specific practices and issues associated with being a digital nomad. The fourth
section included a set of questions derived from our review of the forums, focusing on such
matters as staying up to date with one’s profession, looking for new knowledge, job searching,
work locations, and general reflections on work practice. Interviews lasted between 50 and 70
minutes each, and were conducted by the first author either via web conference or by phone.
The conversational path through each interview varied based on the participant’s responses
and the topics that emerged. All interviews were audio recorded and then transcribed by a
professional transcriptionist service.
2 E.g. Nomad Summit, or Digital Nomad Festival (DNX)
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Participant
Gender
Position
Profession
Nationality
P1
M
Freelancer
Web designer/developer
United States
P2
F
Freelancer
User experience designer
Latvia
P3
F
Freelancer
Marketing consultant and social media strategist
United States
P4
M
Freelancer
Online marketing and development
United States
P5
M
Freelancer
Business writer
United States
P6
F
Freelancer
Media producer
United States
P7
F
Freelancer
Personal coach
United States
P8
F
Freelancer
Organization and process consultant
United States
P9
F
Freelancer
Web developer
United States
P10
F
Freelancer
Web editor
United States
P11
F
Freelancer
Technical writer
United States
P12
F
Freelancer
Blogger
Canada
P13
M
Entrepreneur
Developer
France
P14
M
Freelancer
Journalist
United States
P15
F
Entrepreneur
Ecommerce consultant
United States
P16
M
Entrepreneur
Lawyer
United States
P17
M
Freelancer
Journalist
United States
P18
M
Freelancer
Web developer
United States
P19
F
Freelancer
Online marketing
Slovakia
P20
F
Organization
Product manager
Canada
P21
M
Organization
Entrepreneurship consultant
Germany
P22
M
Freelancer
SEO marketer
India
P23
F
Freelancer
Entrepreneurship researcher
United States
Table 1: Participants information
Forum posts and interviews were analyzed using a process of open, then axial, coding on
Dedoose, a collaborative coding application. In open coding the forum content, we focused on
digital nomads' discussions of how their nomadic situation impacted their ability to manage
personal knowledge, maintain important discourses with professional contacts, and reflect at a
high level on their work. We adopted the same foci in analyzing the interview data. Themes,
which appeared across all of our data, led to the development of a set of first-order codes
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primarily surrounding behaviors and strategies. Per coding norms, we articulated these codes
as the participants described them (Van Maanen, 1979, p. 4).
Through axial coding, we aggregated and categorized our first-order codes into second-
order themes and finally aggregate dimensions. Based on Gioia et al’s framework (2012), Figure
1 demonstrates the connection among first-order concepts, second-order themes, and
aggregate dimensions. Because we used the material from the forums to structure the
interview protocol, and then used the interview data to guide us through rereading the forum
posts, we were able to triangulate across the two forms of data. In this way, the interviews
allowed us to uncover new phenomena and revise interpretations of the forum data.
Figure 1: Data structure adopted from Gioia et al. (2012)
Findings
Motivated by our research question, we identified five PKM activities that digital nomads
engage in to construct functioning knowledge ecologies. These activities enable digital nomads
to create, distribute, and apply knowledge using digital technologies outside of a traditional,
organizational KM context.
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Social sharing
Digital nomads report that they frequently consult one another regarding problems and
solutions. This sharing and interaction allows participants to benefit from the experiences of
other digital nomads (and other workers) and to develop responses to the difficulties they
encounter in their day-to-day nomadic life. Digital nomads are clear about the benefits of
connecting to other workers, particularly as they have few other means for peer interaction;
they typically operate as independent workers without a stable organizational office
environment where they can readily communicate with partners, colleagues, and/or clients,
Participant 20 noted that she highly values “the opportunity to visit meetups and connect with
people in person.” Participant 19 shares the same outlook, stating that “the interaction with
people” allows her to “hear feedback on projects” and that she similarly “likes to help” those
she interacts with.
For digital nomads, most of this type of social sharing occurs online or in transitory places
like co-working spaces. Popular social media frequented by digital nomads include Twitter,
Facebook, Instagram, online publishing technologies like Medium, and collaboration tools (e.g.,
Skype, Slack chat, text messaging, and Google Hangouts). These tools allow for knowledge
exchange across time zones and on opposite sides of the globe. Older direct communication
channels like email or instant messaging are also used to maintain “strong connections with
friends and family that may be remote” (participant 23). Participant 18 describes social media
usage as a way to “talk to the people you’re interested in and kind of see what’s up to date.
Similarly, Participant 15 stated: “LinkedIn [and social media like it]” serve as something to utilize
for the times when “friends have questions” and her expertise would be valuable.
Coworking spaces are also viewed by digital nomads as places where they can socialize
and share knowledge with other similar non-organizationally bound workers. In the experience
of P19, “coworking space(s) are mainly for community…people that I can talk to… [and] can
exchange ideas with.” Similarly, P13 described going to coworking spaces for events in order to
make contacts, and P14 stated that he was more interested in going to coworking spaces now
because he was starting a company and would need to hire people. In short, part of the PKM
strategy of digital nomads is to seek out agile mechanisms (i.e., digital and thus universally
accessible from any location or local but with a targeted population) for knowledge exchange.
Even though they are highly independent and, thus, consequently disconnected and dislocated,
they remedy this situation by proactive social sharing.
The activity of social sharing is enabled by a variety of technologies that promote
communication and direct knowledge sharing. Social media platforms (both general and
nomad-specific) and direct communication tools (e.g., Skype, Slack chat, text messaging, and
Google Hangouts) allow for knowledge exchange across time zones and on opposite sides of
the globe.
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Networking
Social sharing allows the collective negotiation of meaning. Doing so requires a social
infrastructure. In other words, social sharing requires the presence of other knowledgeable
agents who can collaborate to build on one another’s knowledge. While social sharing is
directed at seeking solutions to specific knowledge problems, networking is the activity of
intentionally fostering connections to other independent workers whose knowledge can bolster
a digital nomad’s own. The two PKM activities are intertwined; however, social sharing is
instrumentally focused on “know-how” or “know-what,” whereas networking primarily results
in “know-who.” To address this issue, digital nomads rely heavily on digital-nomad specific
forms of networking, such as social media groups and co-working spaces. Participant 9
describes meeting people through discussions on “common problems” via social media groups.
These online communities are “...active because…people have questions for each other.” Digital
nomads are actively seeking out social media activity to meet others with similar lifestyles,
outlooks, and problems.
Similarly, Participant 9 discusses the affordance of co-working spaces for network
building. As she describes it: “if I need…to meet somebody or…want to…change the pace [of
work] I go to co-working spaces.” Digital nomads searched online to identify these physical
spaces; participant 13 even built an application, which allows digital nomads to give “co-
working space recommendations.” Oftentimes, dedicated in-person meet ups focused around
specific topics or work-fields grow out of this digital connection. Participant 22, for example,
hosted numerous meetups, including a “WordPress meetup group” that organized events in
which WordPress site managers could interact and hear “guest speakers,” allowing both the
problem-holder and assistant to “learn something new” about the technology they utilize in
their work. As a result, even though digital nomads are considered extreme location-
independent workers, they still see themselves attached to certain spaces, particularly those
with social affordances.
Similarly, popular social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, serve as common
communication channels and provided opportunity for digital nomads to nurture their network.
These are complemented with a number of digital nomad-specific applications that are
designed to foster ties among digital nomads. For example, Nomadlist.io, provides an active
forum section (which mostly serves social sharing) which allows digital nomads to post their
travel itinerary and shows other users who will be in the same places at the same time. It also
provides a dedicated page for organizing digital nomad meetups in various cities, because, as
the page’s banner indicates, “sitting in front of a laptop on the other side of the world can get
pretty lonely.” 2F
3
3 https://nomadlist.com/meetups
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Nomadbase, a more recent messaging application, was described in an announcement
post in a digital nomad Facebook group as designed to enable digital nomads to “[meet] like-
minded people...in every new location.” There are digital nomad-specific or traveler-specific
dating sites and applications, such as dateanomad.net and misstravel.com, which help connect
digital nomads with one another. These applications support a grassroots effort amongst digital
nomads to build connections within the community, forge professional connections, and find
travel partners. The result is entangled personal and professional networks.
This community support extends to integrating new digital nomads into the lifestyle.
Participant 17 runs a business that assists prospective digital nomads to transition to the
lifestyle. Their outreach and networking is primarily focused through digital nomad channels on
social media, advertising primarily through Facebook and Instagram. Similarly, digital nomads
on the forums often give advice about the ‘runway,’ the time it takes for a digital nomad to
establish themselves professionally and find consistent remote work before they run out of
savings. A reddit user even created a spreadsheet that “takes your income, passive income, tax
rate, fixed expenses, and savings and figures out how much runway you'd have in 500 popular
digital nomad cities.” Through these tools, and by interacting with the larger community, the
digital nomad not only establishes connections within their profession, but also joins a
supportive network for working remotely.
Self-managing and reflecting
Digital nomads, by definition, are self-directed. Because their KM is less dependent on
organizational sources and influences, they must be highly invested in self-reflection to
maintain their work style and career. This means that they constantly rely on their awareness to
take stock of their knowledge and assess how to best translate or reinvent it to suit their ever-
changing environment and status.
Self-managing and reflecting are aspects of digital nomad’s self-evaluation of their career
growth and learning, and constitute more tacit aspects of their knowledge ecology. Doing this
requires digital nomads to reflect on what they know and assess what knowledge is necessary
to move forward. The goal of self-reflecting is therefore not to solve a specific problem or
answer a specific work-related question. Instead, it is focused on improving a digital nomad’s
self and developing a philosophy for life and work. This is performed through a combination of
focused meditation and what Kolb and Collins (2011) call intentional, “regenerative
disconnection” (fostering self-reflection and individual absorptive capacity by disconnecting
from information streams and social interactions): digital nomads perform not only high-level
strategy but may also remove themselves from a work environment or information streams in
order to meditate on their status and goals. This enables to engage with deeper thinking,
sorting out priorities, career strategies, and life options.
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To accomplish regenerative disconnection, participants underscore their need for
intentional breaks. For example, participant 6 stresses the importance of “taking a breather”
and “planning breaks” throughout the workday, stating that “the more breaks she takes, the
more creative and productive she is.” Participant 9 likewise stresses, “work life balance” and
expressed interest in “digital sabbaticals where… [she] just [goes] offline…for a
week…weekend” or even a day. Participant 22 takes this a step further, describing a portion of
time in which he spent one month completely off the internet camping in the mountains. His
explanation for this withdrawal was that “being disconnected is good for productivity.
Self-reflecting is often supported by journals, notebooks, or other forms of note-taking or
diagramming tools that assist in processing information. For example, Participant 17 “always
carries a little notebook to write down small thoughts” until they can be copied to a digital
medium.
Removing distractions is also integral to self-managing and reflecting. Some participants
turn off push notifications manually, intentionally keeping certain times free of information.
Others use blocking technologies such as Cold Turkey to get rid of digital distraction. For
example, participant 22 relies on such notification blockers because notifications cause “too
many distractions”, and even though a message may be of some importance, “[he doesn’t] need
to know right away”. Other personal productivity tools aid by creating a more comfortable
environment for concentrated thought. For example, several digital nomads on the digital
nomad forum described their usage of white noise applications such as Noizio to help them
overcome distractions from working in places with substantial ambient noise.
Reinventing
Most digital nomads pursue project-based work and are oriented towards problem
solving. Many problems digital nomads face, much like other knowledge workers, are complex
enough that they rarely involve “cut-and-dried answers.” (Halverson, 2004, p. 1). As such,
reinventing solutions constitutes a high portion of their daily work activities. Reinventing, in this
context, is the act of transforming ideas, experience, and general knowledge into a solution
that directly addresses the project at hand; it relies on trial and error rather than a linear
progression.
Reinventing enables digital nomads to put into use knowledge that has been acquired
through the activities of social sharing (know-how and know-what) and networking (know-
who). It is, in effect, the third part of a sequence of acquiring and making sense of the
information and knowledge digital nomads are perpetually gathering in the wild. That said,
because knowledge must be reinvented to be usable, it is not always possible to discern success
ahead of time. This means that risk is an unavoidable element in the activity of reinventing.
Nevertheless, via reinventing, digital nomads showcase their knowledge as problem solving, the
core intention of this activity. In this way, digital nomads pursue “... individualized approaches
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and individual autonomy over implementation... ”, which Davenport (2016, p. 169) sees as a “...
relatively unexplored approach … to … KM.”
The digital technologies that support reinventing are limited in comparison to other
PKM activities, typically falling into the category of thinking tools: tools that facilitate thinking
and tinkering such as notebooks, scrap paper drawings, or any form of digital tool that allows
the worker to capture serendipitous thoughts, keep track of them, and analyze them.
Participant 5 views the use of a notebook as “a creative process” because “visually doing
something by hand with pen and paper” helps him “change his perspectives.” On a similar note,
participant 15 favors “the paper notebook because…[she]” can process material “far better than
if I’m…on the phone or computer.” Participant 17 describes, “sketching” as a way “to
build…conceptual skills” that assist in problem-solving. Participant 13 explains that “a lot of his
initial ideas” originate via notebook and pen rather than through any digital methods. Audio-
recording and processing devices also assist in capturing spontaneous thoughts. Participant 16
describes the use of a dictation app on his phone to jot down quick ideas when he was unable
to access writing tools, particularly on the move.
Managing and making sense of information
As is hopefully evident already, digital nomads must both maintain their knowledge base,
constantly absorb, and adapt to new knowledge. This requires a digital nomad to seek and store
(in their head or on some material or digital platform) relevant new information while being
mindful of information overload. Doing so puts a primacy on properly seeking and sourcing
valuable information. For example, participant 18 discussed sourcing first-hand travel advice
from sites like wikivoyage and prioritizing sources like NomadList because its paywall limits
postings, ensuring that this information there is likely to be from experienced digital nomads.
Furthermore, information seeking and sense-making in this context require intentional
pacing and filtering. Avoiding information overload becomes a complex task of curating,
scheduling, and manipulating information in order to absorb it most effectively. For example,
Participant 18 describes the “noisy” element of “newsfeeds” and discussed his intentions to
ignore what is unnecessary. Participants 13, 14, 17, 19 and 21 all describe pacing their
information intake by scheduling certain tasks for specific environments, such as trains or
airplanes, when they cannot work on other things, and have the time or attention to absorb
them. Clearly, information can be acquired at a rapid pace, but the process of transforming it
into actionable knowledge ready for digital nomads’ daily practices of reinventing requires
arbitration by the worker.
This negotiation of information intake is partly facilitated by cloud storage and
information management tools. For some digital nomads, cloud technologies and storage
applications such as Google Drive, Dropbox, Pocket are integral means of processing
information at a pace that prevents information burnout. Participant 13 keeps a rich cache of
15
information on Pocket, “thousands and thousands of articles” collected through “years of
reading online work.” Likewise, participant 3 describes coming across “great articles” while
working, but explains that “if I start reading it then I go down a rabbit hole and I don’t get
anything done so I can just click it immediately to Pocket and saves it and syncs it and then later
if I’m on a bus and without WiFi or 3G, a tablet or whatever then I have all of it right there to
read.” Applications like Pocket support digital nomads’ constant mobility by allowing them to
determine where and when they consume information.
Other digital nomads prefer to support their information curation practices using digital
note-taking tools. For example, participant 26 uses Evernote “for light word processing” and
jotting down “ideas and notes.” Technologies such as muting tools and work-assistance tools
also allow participants to block out distractions. In essence, these technologies are being used
to create a cognitive “space” in which digital nomads can focus.
Discussion
Drawing these findings together, we can see two key insights that bear further conceptual
development. The first is the realization that our notion of PKM provides a strategic vantage
point for viewing and explaining more personal and community-oriented knowledge activities
and resources increasingly leveraged in digital work. The second corresponds to our nascent
understanding of the interrelationship between digital nomads’ PKM activities and the
knowledge ecologies that support them. We address each insight in turn. .
Digital Nomad’s PKM Activities
Like any knowledge worker, digital nomads require an understanding of information
management and a high degree of information literacy (Pauleen & Gorman, 2016). This also
means that they must continually add to their store of knowledge to be effective and keep
relevant with their work. Because this necessity puts them at risk of being overwhelmed, digital
nomads must work hard to prevent or mitigate the negative effects of information overload to
be successful, even if they possesses a high level of information literacy. One key way that they
do this is by engaging in social sharing activities.
Social sharing relies on digital nomad’s socializing and networking activities, which
contribute to developing and extending a social infrastructure or community for other socially
oriented KM practices. By “getting out of the office” and opening up communication channels
via social media, digital nomads are able to broaden both their scope of knowledge and
information as well as their social networks (Cranefield & Prusak, 2016, p. 108). These activities
end up being simultaneously a means of learning about and contributing relevant information
across their social networks (Pauleen & Gorman, 2016) as well as curating salient information.
By In social sharing activities, a digital nomad’s personal and professional information seeking
converges.
16
In sharp contrast to most organizational KM efforts designed to support workers with
static resources, a digital nomad’s KM is embodied and personalized, relying on information
curation practices that are mediated by interpersonal interaction rather than inert knowledge
resources (Snowden, Pauleen, & Jansen Van Vuuren, 2016). Nomadic networking, as such,
relies on building and managing relationships; it is these relationships that enable digital
nomads to benefit from the knowledge of others (Halverson, 2004; Jarrahi & Sawyer, 2013).
More broadly, this social sharing reflects what we know from prior KM literature that
established “... social knowledge…is…about mutually directed relationships with meaning
developing out of interactions with others” (Davenport, 2016, p. 118).
Likewise, digital nomads’ reinventing activities require them to go beyond what they
know to find a suitable response to a problem. In such situations, they often seek inputs from
their broader network to bootstrap their understanding of the problem. Applying this collective
intelligence, however, occurs in a highly situated context--one that becomes a test of a worker’s
personal capacity to integrate absorbed knowledge; ultimately, it is up to the digital nomad
alone to develop a specific response to the problem at hand. We can see reinventing, therefore,
as “not merely about tweaking the ideas of others. It requires the skillful selection, analysis, and
assimilation of the right external knowledge… [matched] to the right local needs at the right
time” (Cranefield & Prusak, 2016, p. 100). To reinvent requires a digital nomad to “continually
appraise” the ideas they are exposed to, both in terms of usefulness and in respect to context
(Cranefield & Prusak, 2016).
Digital nomads’ PKM practices of self-managing and reflecting are similar to what Pauleen
and Gorman (2016) have termed “management” in the context of PKM, and can be understood
as a form of personal evaluation that enables knowledge workers to decide on and seek “new
and relevant information, knowledge experiences, and learnings.” These practices are the basis
of “[determining] and [structuring] a PKM strategy that meets one’s personal situation”
through an “understanding of self, including…strengths and weaknesses” (Pauleen & Gorman,
2016, p. 7). In other words, self-managing and reflecting are strategic activities. Critical
reflection helps digital nomads to challenge, invalidate or confirm their theories of work and
the world (Chatti, 2012).
In sum, our findings connect to much of what we already know about knowledge
workers. Indeed, we see a tight coupling with workers who engage in flexible work
arrangements (e.g., such as remote working or traditional nomadic working). The PKM practices
of these workers overlap with those outlined here to different degrees. Our premise is that
none of these activities is unique to the work context of digital nomads, but digital nomads
provide a useful foray into how knowledge management may be pursued when the worker is
less administratively and spatially attached to the organization.
17
Personal Knowledge Ecologies
Our findings also point to the interrelationship of PKM activities and digital technology,
which together comprise digital nomads’ knowledge ecologies. These knowledge ecologies
‘belong to’ the individual worker (in that these workers are responsible for keeping the ecology
together) and are utilized by individual workers as a mechanism to support their PKM activities.
Personal knowledge ecologies demonstrate minimal dependence on organizational knowledge
infrastructures and the need for increased personalization of knowledge and IT to support
modern (and future) work practices.
We began by setting digital nomads’ PKM activities in the context of project-based and
gig work, a context that reflects a weakened relationship between organization and worker
(Manyika et al., 2016; Spinuzzi, 2015). What workers have long known, regardless of
organizational context, is to rely on community knowledge resources. Our data show that this is
an activity still very much in practice by digital nomads. How they accomplish this, however, is
new. They use digital technologies with social and communicative affordances (e.g., online
forums, social media, and communication tools) to perform PKM activities such as networking
and social sharing; these are familiar social and community-oriented functions for knowledge
workers. What is distinct in the case of digital nomads, is that these practices have moved from
secondary sources of knowledge seeking to primary sources for sharing and building expertise.
This community dimension of digital nomad’s knowledge ecologies is depicted in Figure 2.
Even though personal knowledge ecologies are enacted in a self-interested fashion, they
overlap with the knowledge ecologies of others to create a set of sociotechnical community
resources for all digital nomads. For example, a record of online conversations around work visa
and tax situations in different countries is available on the Nomadlist forum. Similarly, by
integrating inputs from nomads, coworking.coffee provides information on the top workplaces
with decent coffee.
The community dimension of digital nomads’ knowledge ecologies serves as a means to
facilitate the translation of of personal knowledge (individual level) into a shared or collective
intelligence that can benefit the community of digital nomads as a whole. Despite differences in
professional goals, digital nomads tend to face similar forms of work and personal challenge as
they travel globally. One of the primary strategies for handling these challenges is to form and
take advantage of a community of practice around digital nomadism (Sutherland & Jarrahi,
2017). In these situations, people may invest in their own learning and contribute to the
community’s knowledge resources, motivated by a norm of reciprocity and the desire for
recognition from peers (Huysman & Wulf, 2006). Social media offer the most visible
affordances for bringing about this dynamic form of collective intelligence. As Razmerita et al.
(2014, p. 89) suggest, “Social media makes the management of knowledge possible as a way to
augment collective intelligence by connecting and summing the individual intelligences in a
harmonious manner.”
18
Figure 2: Knowledge ecologies embodying both individual and community dimensions.
Furthermore, the overlap of knowledge ecologies among digital nomads allows
individuals to not only contribute to a community resources, but to easily access key knowledge
which they can internalize and reflect upon. . A direct outcome of this process is to ignite, if
initially latently, the cycle of reinventing--absorbing acquired knowledge, applying it in new
situations, and creating solutions to emerging knowledge problems. These activities require
continuous reflection on one's work and career, as well as a balance between professional and
personal life. This often takes place through regenerative disconnection from information
overload and distractions, including those caused by digital technologies. The PKM activity of
self-reflecting helps digital nomads to constantly decide about their future career and
directions, as well as develop, and maintain individual competitive edge over many other
independent gig workers.
Advancing Social Informatics
Beyond our two empirical insights, this research also contributes to social informatics in
two ways. First, we carry forward an empirical tradition that has been the hallmark of SI
research in the past with our documentation of the ways that the personalization of both
19
knowledge and uses of ICTs permeate the knowledge-intensive work contexts of digital
nomads. Our second, conceptual contribution advances social informatics by introducing the
concept of knowledge ecologies: sociotechnical assemblages of PKM practices and the mutual
interdependence of these with an assemblage of digital devices and related technologies. This
conceptualization builds from the work of Gibson’s ecological perspective, with specific
attention to the ways in which this perspective encompasses the intertwined relationships
among the digital nomads, their knowledge needs and goals, the digital (and material
technologies) that are either embedded in or drawn in to the activities. These two contributions
are modest in the sense that they reflect what social informatics scholars have been seeking
(Kling, 2007; e.g., Steve Sawyer & Hartswood, 2014). More to the point, these contributions
also provide additional empirical material and conceptual clarity regarding the complex
sociotechnical arrangements that bring humans and digital technologies together.
Conclusions
We have advanced the concept of PKM and digital ecologies. In doing this we have used
data about digital nomads, who serve as a living laboratory for exploring how KM will evolve as
the relationships between workers and organizations grow weaker and more transactional even
as the relationship between both organizations and knowledge, and workers and knowledge,
grow more critical to future success. In the new landscape of work, individual knowledge
workers have to engage in “lifelong personal learning” and will “need to take action on their
own to enhance their potential for success” (Hagel, Schwartz, & Bersin, 2017). Both PKM and
knowledge ecologies embody taking action and pursuing lifelong personal learning.
We have shown that the digital nomad’s efforts at PKM, and the knowledge ecologies
they assemble in support of this, demonstrate two sociotechnical dynamics that are likely to
epitomize the future of knowledge work and KM. First, the primacy of organizations and
organizational resources are likely to fade into the background as knowledge workers
increasingly operate as free agents (Barley et al., 2017) and as a significant proportion of
knowledge work is executed through alternative or non-standard work arrangements (e.g.,
online freelancing and contract-based work) (Hagel et al., 2017). Digital nomads represent this
new form of work as both location and organizationally independent workers. Our findings
indicate that these workers have to navigate the work environment by themselves in the
absence of hierarchical direction and resources. KM in this context is largely personal and
depends on individual or community resources that a digital nomad can bring to bear.
Consequently, the ecology of KM tools and practices is situated in a combined personal-
professional sphere. Another important aspect of digital nomads work concerns nomadism and
remote working, which is expected to be a defining element of future work settings (Leclercq-
Vandelannoitte & Isaac, 2016). While constant travel and mobility enables digital nomads to
come into contact with new ideas, it also poses certain challenges. Therefore, some of the PKM
20
activities of digital nomads are directed at understanding places and acquiring knowledge about
how to survive in unpredictable work environments.
Second, the PKM activities of digital nomads underscore the central roles of consumer
technologies. Different than organizational KM (which are often specifically designed using
bespoke software and organizationally-centric processes), personal knowledge ecologies
emerge from the actor-centered uses of personal tools (e.g., productivity applications),
personal services (e.g., personal cloud services), and community-based online resources (e.g.,
the Nomadlist forum).
Commercial digital technologies play key roles in supporting PKM (Jung et al., 2008). Their
importance made clear, our data make clear that purchasing or using consumer technologies
does not itself create a knowledge ecology. As a bricoleur of different technologies (Halverson,
2004), digital nomads often go to great lengths to configure these commodity technologies and
bring them together in the form of cohesive knowledge ecologies. Information is often
fragmented across different digital platforms, and it becomes the project of the digital nomad
to bring the various devices into useful alignment. Seen this way, knowledge ecologies are not
given, they emerge out of this kind of ‘articulation work’ or ‘coordination work,’ (Bardram et al.,
2015) - what Sawyer et al. (2018) have called “infrastructural competence.” Going forward, it
may be this infrastructural competence or technological acuity defines one of the most critical
literacies that digital nomads have to possess and nurture as digital workers, and -- more
broadly -- knowledge work itself ((See Halverson, 2004, for example)).
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