Software that minds your business
Mind-mapping software jumps in to help you organize your thoughts and activities
- By Larry Stevens
- May 14, 2007
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we’d find the information in the printout, it might be out of date.”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
“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.”
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
“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
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.
Once the project is moving ahead, project management software is much
better suited to help juggle resources, timelines and schedules, King
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.