Do you need a second brain?

If HR professionals find knowledge curation apps useful, then they should really consider rolling them out to employees in the rest of the organization, says David Creelman.

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Jul 19, 2023

If you’re anything like me, you might sometimes hear some of the smart people you know talk about their ‘second brains.’

If you inquire (and they are all secretly hoping you will), they will rave about an app that helps them note down things they have read and enables them to connect their ideas.

Some of the most popular tools include the likes of Evernote, Notion, OneNote, and Obsidian, but there are plenty more. These tools are collectively called knowledge curation apps.

Given this is a technology that some people adore, it’s worth debating whether this is a tool that you as an HR professional should adopt.

For these are NOT like the usual business tools we are familiar with – such as Excel or an applicant tracking system. They are personal tools where you collect what you think is important or interesting.

Creating your second brain

To properly examine them, it’s worth recognizing why people want them in the first place.

Most people are normally driven to use a knowledge curation app because they read a lot and then get frustrated with how much they forget.

If this is you, then there is a good chance you’ll appreciate these tools.

The essential functionality is having one place to store all your notes, and psychologists will tell you that the mere act of taking notes is a powerful learning technique in its own right, even if you never refer to them.

Of course, the intent is that you will use the search features of the app to dig up half-forgotten knowledge when you need it.

The more advanced functionality is categorizing and connecting your ideas, so that instead of just having a long list of notes, you’ve instead made connections between ideas that spur your thinking.

Again, simply the act of making the connections is an enormously important learning technique even if you don’t refer to them ever again. However, it’s this personal web of ideas that leads people to call these tools their second brain.

So, should knowledge curation be part of a training curriculum?

To my mind, if you really do find that knowledge curation apps help you be a more effective HR professional, then you should be seriously asking whether HR ought to be promoting these across the rest of the organization too.

This is because even though professionals tend to find and use their own personal effectiveness tools, just as we may teach people a time management technique like Dave Allen’s “Getting Things Done”, we may want to teach people to use knowledge curation tools also.

And the best thing about these tools, is that not a lot of teaching is actually required; it’s just a matter of being sure employees are aware such tools exist and encouraging them to try them out.

Who owns your second brain?

Despite all the above though, there should be a note of caution. A tricky element of knowledge curation tools is that they are fundamentally personal tools being used in the workplace.

So, if someone has made notes from all their favorite management books, then they will want to take them with them when they leave the organization. However, if their notes include a lot of specific information about the organization, then that information belongs to the organization and can’t really be allowed to ‘walk out’ of the door.

My view on this, is that in practice it will be very hard to police what information people take away when they leave the organization.

That said though, employees can be educated about what’s appropriate. The key point is not to mix personal and business information in the same database. If you do want to use a knowledge curation app for business information, then create a separate database for that.


Knowledge curation is just one of many personal productivity tools that exist. It is a useful exercise to start asking your friends and colleagues if they use any apps to help them record and connect ideas. You may be surprised how many people have adopted one tool or another and you can learn why they think these tools are valuable.

Perhaps the right question for HR is whether the learning programs they have are adequately supporting employees in learning about and adopting the tools that work for them. After all, it’s not a matter of insisting people use a particular tool, just encouraging them to find what works for them.

One final thought: Knowledge curation tools genuinely do provide a way to extend your own intelligence and that of the employees in your organization.

Not everyone finds them useful, however, everyone should at least be aware of the potential power of a second brain.

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