December 13, 2006

What is concept mapping? – and how could it be vital to your work?

In this article I explain how concept maps can help greatly with research, project management, creativity and productivity. Questions answered include: what do concept maps do? why might concept mapping be a vital research and management technique? how do they relate to databases? how can they be used? what is the basic structure of a concept map? what techniques are there to exploit their potential? I also introduce Mindjet MindManager, the best available concept mapping software, with an overview of its key features. If you are interested in training in this software and techniques, see the note at the end of this article.

Many of the things that we (in business or academia) work upon require efficient access to tens, hundreds, thousands or more related items of information. Each item of information may be small but at the same time distinct and important in itself. Think of an example from a domain that you work on. It could be a daily process like working out your schedule, or perhaps something more exotic, like designing a new rocket ship. The items of information involved might be many simple and diverse attributes of a real world entity, or perhaps events within an abstract and difficult process of reflection. Complexity is everywhere, and we need to manage it.

Complex domains of information can sometimes be stored within a database. These are usually designed according to tried and tested methods, using sometimes esoteric logical structures. However, in many cases, there is neither the need nor the opportunity to build such a formal solution. Database design is an expensive, specialised and time consuming business. When it goes wrong, the consequences can be painful for the end user. Perhaps a formal structured database is the wrong kind of solution anyway. In many cases, there is no obvious or simple structure to our information. Perhaps a structure could emerge over time, given enough data and sufficient opportunities for its analysis. But how then do we store and use large amounts of data, to enable structure to emerge, without a structured database design? The chicken-egg precedence issues are obvious.

What if it were possible to store large numbers of small items of information in an ad hoc way, with only a minimal schema or even none at all? Perhaps some degree of structure could then emerge during the process of storing and reflecting upon it. This could be a middle way between a structured database and a simple list. Concept mapping has developed to fit precisely this niche.

Concept maps have, for a long time, been scrawled onto paper and whiteboards in the hope that they will help to make more sense of what we know and what we don’t know. People find the approach to be effective for a wide range of uses, including:

  • recording research information;
  • recording known information and identifying gaps;
  • fast generation, analysis and ordering of ideas;
  • identifying patterns, relationships, causality, priorities and hierarchies;
  • recording tasks and resources;
  • planning projects;
  • communication of ideas using the map itself;
  • generating presentations and documents from the map;
  • frameworking writing;
  • assisting memory;
  • cooperative thinking;
  • decision making;
  • designing system schemas;
  • keeping a journal of individual or team activities.

Now take this simple idea, and add to it a brilliantly intuitive interface for storing and organising information within ad hoc structures. Combine this with powerful tools for extending that information (with text, links and metadata), and for searching, filtering and outputting the results. Would that be of use? If so, MindManager 6 from Mindjet is the application for you. It is the most professional, sophisticated and easy to use concept mapping system. Warwick has a site licence (Windows, on campus only) and a rapidly growing population of users.

Read on for more about concept mapping and MindManager.

What is a concept map?

A concept map consists of:

  1. A central topic defining the domain (problem, or object) that the map is about.
  2. Many small items of information about that central topic, the sub-topics of the central topic, such as facts about events and entities (real or imaginary).
  3. Connections between topics.
  4. Hierarchies, such that some topics are sub-topics of other sub-topics. Information is ordered into a tree structure with multiple branches and leaves.

Here is a simple example. It is a concept map about me. There is a central topic (in this case with an image). This has four sub-topics. Two of these sub-topics have their second level visible. There is much more information on the map, but it is hidden from view within closed topics (the + sign next to a topic indicates that it contains more). Note also the hyperlinks to web pages.

Simple concept map example

Concept mapping is the process of building such structures. The purpose is twofold:

  1. To help to generate and to handle unstructured information;
  2. Where necessary and appropriate, to draw out order and organisation.

For this to be possible, it is essential that our concept mapping techniques and tools allow the following:

  1. The easy addition of topics regardless of patterns and structures.
  2. A simple mechanism for moving topics from one branch of the tree to another.
  3. Clear and simple means of presenting and reviewing the structure and the information that it contains.
  4. The ability to search through the text of all of the topics on the map.

MindManager has all of these facets. New topics are entered simply by pressing the Enter key and typing. Sub-topics are entered with the Insert key. Topics are moved using drag-and-drop mouse controls. The on-screen and print view of a map can be manipulated to hide or show detail, and to scroll and zoom as required. A text search tool zooms into matching topics (and searches topic notes). It is, in fact, so simple that a new user can generate a complex but useful map in minutes.

Beyond simple concept mapping

So far this should sound pleasingly simple if not blindingly obvious. However, if you have used such techniques in any depth, you will already know that they have their limits. Want more? MindManager introduces some additional aspects to concept mapping, implemented with more sophisticated but easy to use features:

  1. Any topic may also contain images and a more detailed text (hidden until required).
  2. Both topics and the links between them may contain ‘call-out bubbles’ with additional short comments.
  3. Topics and links can be formatted either for presentational or informational purposes.
  4. Topics can be linked to documents and web pages outside of the map.
  5. Topics can be linked to other sub-topics that are not contained on the same branch of the tree.
  6. Additional meta data can be attached to a topic, allowing it to be categorised and described in further structured ways.
Breaking out from the tree

Features 4, 5, and 6 listed above help to transform the rigidly arborescent tree structure of the map into a more complex web like or rhizomatic structure. Trees are fine for many things, but as our ancestors discovered, you can only do so much by clambering up and down the branches.

There are very good reasons why you would want to go beyond arborescence. Most obviously, the real world, with its objects and events, is not structured like a tree. For example, Rachel may be the son of David, and could be represented as a sub-topic of David. However, Rachel is more closely allied to the Socialist Workers Party, a fact that we should never forget when considering her. So should she also be a sub-topic of the SSWP topic? A simple tree structure would find that difficult.

Perhaps we could link her topic node to the SSWP topic? There’s another much more powerful option: text markers.

Text markers

A text marker is a kind of keyword tag. For example, we could tag Rachel’s topic with the text marker “SWP member”. Other people on our concept map could also be tagged with this text marker (but not David, her father is a devout Tory). This could be an aid to finding all of the SWP members within our research data. Or, more interestingly, we could use it to search for patterns in the data. Perhaps we would see that the SWP are systematically infiltrating certain types of other organisation, in preparation for a coup d’etat. MindManager allows us to create whatever text markers are required whenever we want. It does, however, encourage some organisation within our text marker schema. Markers should be organised into groups, so for example we would have a text marker group called “SWP”, containing the markers “SWP member” and “SWP activist”.


This is a feature that always prompts a “wow” when it is demonstrated. Once text markers have been applied to the topics on a map, a filter can be constructed to show only topics with specified text markers. For example, if we wanted to find out who the SWP activists are, we would select the text marker “SWP activist” and apply a filter. This can be used for analytical purposes, or to simple make the map easier to use.


For a more visual alternative to text markers, a set of meaningful icons can be applied to topics. For example, there is a set of emoticon icons including various smileys.

Topics as tasks (project management)

In MindManager each topic may also be treated as a task, with a start and end data, priority rating, progress percentage, and resources. Filters can be applied to the map, based upon these attributes. There is then an easy route between a concept map and a managed project.


Many people will have heard of concept mapping. Most of them assume it to be just another productivity or creativity technique. I argue that it is much more significant. Based upon the survey given above, I put concept mapping and its software applications into the same taxonomic class as wordprocessing, relational databases, email, and the web. It is that fundamental. Imagine life without those other fundamental applications? That should give you an idea of the scope of what you are missing out on.


As part of my E-learning Advisor role, I can organise training sessions for groups of between 4 and 12 people. I only have a few free slots each term. Arts Faculty staff and teaching postgrads have priority, but others can be accomodated. Please contact me to enquire.

For an explanation of using concept mapping for personal journalling and customer relations management, see this article.

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