Software that minds your business

Mind-mapping software jumps in to help you organize your thoughts and activities

When weather wreaks havoc on the country’s air traffic control system, there is a good chance that Alan Stensland is at the center of the action. Working out of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Southern region office in Atlanta, the general engineer and his team of four are responsible for tracking and helping to restore services to area airports that are knocked off-line by storms or equipment failures.

The team members’ job is to take control and manage the situation until the crisis is over or the problem fixed. But until two years ago, the information they needed to get that job done was not always readily available. It might be buried under piles of paper, on errant sticky notes, or on one of a small herd of whiteboards smeared with hasty erasures and sprawled with barely legible notes.

“When airports are going off and online quickly, new information comes in by the hour — sometimes by the minute,” Stensland said. “By the time we’d find the information in the printout, it might be out of date.”

That information chaos is largely a thing of the past since the office started using a new type of software known as a mind-mapping tool. Using Mindjet’s mind-mapping tool MindManager, Stensland’s team enters the names and status information of the stricken facilities so they can view a graphical presentation on a computer screen. That view shows them the relationships among the different airports so they can identify at a glance by color-coded graphics which ones are down, which nearby ones are available to take over from those that are off-line, which are close to being back in operation, and so on.

Stensland likens the graphical display to a football game plan. “The coach has the plan, and as he sees what is happening on the field, he makes the needed changes,” Stensland said. “That’s how we’re working with the software.”

Mindjet is one of several companies that sell mind-mapping software. There is also an open-source tool called FreeMind. In its simplest form, mind-mapping software allows users to create diagrams with movable elements. Those elements can represent concepts, tasks, ideas, class assignments, names of staff, facilities, vehicles — anything that an organization might need to track or use for planning purposes. 

Unlike a spreadsheet or word processing document, in which users must enter data in a particular column, row or sequence, mind-mapping programs let users enter data as it comes in or as it comes to mind. Users can then organize and reorganize the data in any way that they find helpful, using techniques such as dynamic associations, key words and colors.

“The primary benefit of mind maps is that they don’t require you to think linearly as do outlines or spreadsheets,” said Mark Levitt, vice president of collaborative computing and the enterprise workplace at IDC. He said mind-mapping software lets people enter thoughts the way they normally think.

“You have one idea and that one leads to a tangential idea,” he said. “Or you’re working on one problem when a co-worker informs you of a second problem which impinges on the first. With mind-mapping applications you don’t have to flip from page to page to enter the extraneous information. And you don’t have to determine the relationship of the items ahead of time.”

Quicker understanding
For FAA, the inherent flexibility of mind-mapping software is invaluable during a quickly changing situation. Before using Mindjet, Stensland had to find the right list or whiteboard each time he wanted to enter new information about an airport or change information. That slowed the tracking process and created opportunities for errors. Now he can enter all that information in the same place and then arrange it when he has a few minutes of breathing space.

The concepts behind mind maps and their predecessors, semantic networks and cognitive maps, date back more than four decades. They grew out of learning theory research. In the 1960s, researchers found that mind maps could help people organize thoughts and quickly grasp relationships among different pieces of information.

More recently, researchers noticed that when people read lists such as those depicted in outlines, spreadsheets and word processing documents, their focus travels from left to right and from top to bottom. In contrast, when viewing a mind map, they scan the entire screen as a whole, speeding up the process of recognizing relationships among the objects.

“Mind maps don’t force people into conforming their thoughts into preset categories, which are often artificial and unnatural and result in inefficient thought processes,” said Ken Roberts, director of product marketing at SmartDraw.com, whose business graphics package, SmartDraw, includes mind-mapping functions.

Ralph Clark, chief executive officer at Gael, which makes MindGenius, said mind maps can be put to any use that involves multiple ideas or data points that at first do not seem to fit under specific headings.

“Mind mapping is best used in situations where the outcome is not known before you begin,” Clark said.

Mind-mapping software can be used for a variety of government-related tasks, such as creating business process improvement strategies, developing and managing disaster response strategies, tracking negotiations, documenting thoughts during hiring interviews, and general brainstorming.

What it’s not
It’s important to note that although mind-mapping software can export the data it manages to more traditional data displays such as outlines or presentation slides, it is not meant to replace those tools. With the possible exception of SmartDraw, which is primarily a business graphics product with a secondary mind-mapping component, mind-mapping applications are meant for finding relationships, not displaying facts that were known before the process began.

So, for example, mind-mapping software would not be the best option if you’re interested in creating an organizational chart, listing details of an existing disaster recovery plan, or creating a presentation on the benefits of a proposed new project.

And although mind-mapping software can be used to track fast-moving events, as in the example at FAA, it is not meant to be a project management application. Gideon King, chief executive officer at NovaMind Software, said the company’s mind mapping product, NovaMind, has the ability to record project-related information, but that is not its intended use.

“You would typically use it in the early stages of project management where you are scoping the development work, showing what is included and excluded and why all the different parts of the project are necessary, how all the different stakeholders’ needs are being met, and how all the resources are being utilized within the project,” he said.

Try it

Once the project is moving ahead, project management software is much better suited to help juggle resources, timelines and schedules, King said.

When deciding whether to use mind-mapping software, cost is rarely an issue. Most products cost only a couple hundred dollars per user, and even the higher-priced products drop in cost substantially with the purchase of multiple licenses. Many also offer free trial periods.

Besides licensing fees, the only other cost consideration is training. But many users, including those at FAA, find they can get up to speed with the product after a few afternoons of training.

The final and probably most important consideration when deciding if your organization can benefit from mind-mapping applications comes down to preferences and work styles.

“Some people like [mind-mapping applications], and they get very adept at it,” Levitt said. “But others prefer the linear approach and like word processors or spreadsheets. It’s hard to know if a mind-mapping application will help you until you try it.”

Stevens is a freelance journalist who has written about information technology since 1982.
FCW quick studyHere’s the lowdown on what mind-mapping software is and isn’t.

What it is
  • Enables users to graphically present and organize relationships between concepts and information in a way that mirrors how people think.
  • Complements, but does not replace, spreadsheet, electronic presentation and project management applications.
Benefits
  • Helps users quickly grasp associations among various ideas and work items, brainstorm, track status, and direct resources.
  • Allows users to enter data, add to it and rearrange it later, which makes it well suited to tasks that do not have predetermined outcomes.
Caveats
  • Designed for individual use, so it is difficult for groups to collaborate on mind maps, though some vendors are working to add group capabilities.
  • Lets users enter data manually, which limits the amount of information that can be managed.
Cost and usability
  • $100 to $300 per user for a software license.
  • Easy to install.
  • Typically requires only a few hours of user training.

— Larry Stevens

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