Mind Mapping: Is It Finally Going to Take Off?

November 12, 2007 at 9:53 am | Posted in knowledge management | 3 Comments

Mind mapping, concept mapping, brainstorming tools have been around a long time and the question has always been whether they will ever take off.  I’ve been using them for a while now in my research, first using FreeMind and then Mindjet MindManager Pro (after getting an eval copy).  My research process involves reading a whole lot from many different sources and angles on a topic until a mental map of the topic and a conceptual model that I’d like to convey starts forming.  That’s when I start the mind map.  Then, as I continue to read, I decide whether each new piece of information is already accounted for in my model, is an enhancement I can add on, or points out a flaw in which case I need to fix it.  I know I’m ready to start writing when I get to the point that I read several articles in a row with no changes needed to my map since everything in them is already accounted for in my conceptual model.

These tools occupy a comfortable middle ground between two extremes of structure.  On one extreme, people are used to dumping unstructured information into emails, documents, or presentation slides that later get copy/pasted into some semblence of order.  The larger and more complex the topic, the more difficult this becomes and, accordginly, the more likely the author is to avoid testing out another way of organizing the information.  On the other extreme are structured content creation tools (e.g., XMetal, ArborText) and database forms that require rigid planning and adherance to structure.  But it’s difficult to get people to think in structured enough fashion for DITA or XML tools.

Mind and concept mapping tools allow the user to enter information in a very unstructured manner, but organize it later.  And that’s really the point – adding a step to the process that allows one to digest the information that has been accumulated and look for patterns.  I think there’s so much emphasis on getting things done that the content planning process gets overlooked.   People spend a lot of time accumulating information – from RSS feeds, from emails, from web pages, from Google searches – but not enough time taking a step back to reflect on what they’ve accumulated.  What does this information tell you?  How do you try out different hypotheses to see which connect up the most information? 

Your standard productivity suite can provide some relief. In Microsoft Office, OneNote allows the separate little content pieces to maintained as separate pieces and organized with tabs and clicked/dragged around, which is a little better.  And Visio 2003 had a brainstorming template that drew mind maps, although its flexibility with regards to page size when entering large maps made it of limited use.

As useful as brainstorming tools can be, I don’t think they are for everyone or every situation.  They are mostly useful for discovering patterns and innovating.  Putting your grocery list in them is a waste of time since there’s no creativity involved.  Unless you own a chain of different ethnic restaurants and are trying to do menu planning.

The real fun will begin when these tools get collaborative.  I don’t mean tracking changes on them, but treating them like wikis where someone’s body of knowledge (not just the information, but their way of organizing, categorizing, and drawing conclusions from it) can be posted out to someone’s Myspace page, blog, or a workspace and others can build on it, adding new examples that confirm a view, pointing out others that contradict the model, or show how new ways of organizing the model make it more clear. 

Accordingly, these tools will have to get better at enabling multiple conceptual models to be applied to the same data points, saved, and quickly switched between.  It is common in preparing for speeches, for example, to want to flip between a chronological or topical narrative until you’ve decided on the best choice, but changes to the nodes themselves should appear in either organizational scheme.

Still, I think there’s a bright future for mind and conceptual mapping tools and I encourage anyone who hasn’t tried one of these tools to take one for a spin.



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  1. This is a very clear and worthwhile exposition of the use of mindmapping for research and writing preparations, thank you. I will link to it at my mind map search engine (mindmapsearch.org)

    You wrote “The real fun will begin when these tools get collaborative.” Well, they have done so over the last 12 months. I collect details of information mapping and info management tools. These are all browser-based applications that do mind mapping, concept mapping or diagramming with active support for mind mapping:

    bubbl.us Collaborative mind mapping (radiant format not enforced)
    comapping.com :- Collaborative (but, for people who like free-format mind mapping, rather rigid) left-to-right mind mapping
    mindmaps.kayuda.com :- Collaborative mind mapping and concept mapping
    mappio.com :- Unusual mind mapper where the user edits indented text to change the mind map
    mapul.com :- Collaborative mind mapping with an organic flavour
    mind42.com :- Collaborative mind mapping
    mindmeister.com :- Collaborative mind mapping
    mindomo.com :- Collaborative mind mapping
    wisemapping.com :- Collaborative mind mapping
    webofweb.net :- Collaborative mind mapping

    Generic diagramming . . . . . . . . . . . .
    cumulatelabs.com/cumulatedraw/ :- Collaborative diagramming – can draw mind maps and concept maps
    flowchart.com :- Collaborative diagramming – can draw mind maps and concept maps
    gliffy.com :- Collaborative diagramming – can draw mind maps and concept maps

    Keep up the good work.

    The master list of mind mapping &
    information management software

  2. Great list. I look forward to digging into some of these tools and checking out the collaborative capabilities. Thanks for “sharing your mind” with me on this!

  3. I experienced using FreeMind. It works great for me more than two years. Recently I tried several online collaborative mind mapping tools such as Mindomo, Mindmeister, Mind42, Wisemapping and Comapping. I found that MindMmeister and Mindomo are good tools which have more features.

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