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February 04, 2007

Using MindManager concept mapping for personal journalling and CRM

Follow-up to What is concept mapping? – and how could it be vital to your work? from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

For the last 7 weeks I have been using a MindManager concept map as a personal work journal. Each day I record my meetings, activities and results into the map. This simple journal has now evolved, with little extra work, into a more sophisticated personal productivity tool and customer relations management (CRM) database. In this article I explain how it works, and how such an easy to use tool used smartly helps me to work much more efficiently.

Firstly, a quick note on MindManager concept mapping for those who have not seen it before. A concept map is an ad-hoc semi-structured database of related information. It contains many small but discrete items of information, usually organised into hierarchies of detail. Mindjet MindManager adds significantly to this basic idea, with a simple to use but extensive interface and feature set. Most importantly, it allows items of information to be keyword tagged with text markers. The map can then be filtered using queries based upon those tags. For more information, read this detailed article.

Here is a screen shot of the top-level topics in my journal concept map:

Journal map

The first of the topics that I developed was Week Commencing (date). This contains the 7 (yes 7) days of the week into which I can write details of my work. At the end of the week, I move this into the Archive section, and create a new blank Week Commencing copied from a template in the Templates section. Here is an example showing a couple of day’s worth of records:

Example days

Most events just contain a simple text title. However, more information can easily be added, such as:

  • hyperlinks (often linking to pages that I am working on or blog entries about the work);
  • file attachments (for example, to hold agendas);
  • email addresses;
  • images;
  • icons (the system contains sets of meaningful icons);
  • long text notes (for example to contain minutes of meetings);
  • task information (see the topics that have end dates underneath them, they have been turned into tasks);
  • “text markers”, or keyword tags.

With these tools I can very quickly build up a simple or a detailed record of what I have been doing. Note that all text entered on the map is searchable using a simple search tool.

The text marker systems adds much more power to concept maps. As I build up my map, I can create an ad-hoc keyword tagging schema by applying text markers to topics. These keywords are added to groups. For example, I have a group called People. This is very significant. I tag every event with the names of the people that it involved. Not only does this give me a simple list of all of my customers, but also a means to filter the entire map for events relevant to specific people. A filter query can be constructed using one or more text markers. Here’s what the filter control looks like:


If I wanted to get at details of all of my work with Sarah Richardson, I could filter the map to show all topics tagged with her name. The map therefore acts as a kind of customer relations management database. I plan to extend this further by tagging topics with the names of the departments with which they are involved, and the names of the technologies that they use.

This then tells me a lot of information about what I have done in the past. I can use it to easily find information about the many different projects in which I am involved. I can also use it for planning. Given that this journal is my main tool for recording and reflecting on my work, and for planning future work, and also that MindManager has some excellent planning features, it makes sense for my map to also have a To Do List section.

Tasks list

I can easily add to this during meetings, giving a visible indication of my agreement to undertake some action at some forecasted time in the future. Notice how this section of the map is divided up:

  1. Today – urgent work;
  2. Scheduled – tasks that have been given an end date (not all recorded on the map);
  3. Not scheduled but important (I try to work out a schedule for them and move them into 2);
  4. Not urgent – things I will do at some point;
  5. Blue sky dreaming – great ideas that may turn into great actions one day.

Note how some of the tasks have priority numbers set. I can also add from a range of other icons, including smileys. Filter queries can be constructed by selecting icons.

Once a task is completed, it gets recorded in the day’s records. I aim at least to get the Today and Scheduled tasks completed on time!

With it’s clear and simple presentation, easy to use and fast interface, and powerful tagging and filtering tools, I have found this to be the most effective approach to improving personal productivity and record keeping. I usually print the map off every couple of days, and annotate my print out when I am off in the field working. The next big step will be to work out how this approach can be adapted for teams. More on that soon.

Note: we have a site license for on campus use. For more information see this page.

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.

November 22, 2005

Research Techniques: Mapping a blog with RSS and MindManager

Having just completed a concept map covering all of my e-learning work, I am now turning my attention towards my philosophy research. Here again the MindManager application is proving invaluable and full of great features.

MindManager is the leading concept mapping tool. I have recently described it as the best piece of academic software I have ever used. In fact it is so good that we (as in the elab E-learning Advisor Team) are buying a site licence, and will soon make it available to everyone. I'll explain more in another entry soon. For now, here's a note on one particularly impressive feature.

As part of the process of creating a map of my research, I am trying to extract some order out of the 85 entries that I have written in my blog as part of my research process, all of which are tagged as philosophy_research . My starting point has been to list all of the books that I have read (or am currently reading), and which have contributed to those entries.

My next step is, for each of those books, to create a list of concepts, questions and issues covered. Fortunately, I have tagged my blog entries so that it is easy for me to get a list of entries relevant to each author. For example, there is a Deleuze list of entries. By looking at the titles of the entries in these lists, I can extract a list of key concepts. In some cases the title itself is insufficient, so I have to go and read the entries themselves.

MindManager has a really useful feature that can help with this: News Feed import. This can read an RSS description of a set of news entries in a news feed. A blog can be treated as such a news feed, and in fact Warwick Blogs provides such RSS descriptions. For example, see the url which gives an RSS description of my latest blog entries. More usefully, you can get an RSS description of a page listing all of your entries that are tagged with a specified keyword. For example, lists the latest 100 entries, starting with the most recent (0), that are tagged with the keyword "Guattari".

When one of these RSS feeds is imported into a MindManager map, you get an auto-generated list of the selected blog entry titles. For example:

From this I can see what aspects of the work of each writer I have taken an interest in.

This is just one of the features of MindManager that I use for my research, e-learning and personal life. Once we have the site licence in place and the software accessible to people, I will be running some seminars and workshops on it, similar to the popular introduction to concept mapping session that I recently ran for the IT Services Training Programme.

If you are interested in this, then please contact me and I will add you to my mailing list.