In the world of mind mapping software, Nick Duffill from Harport Consulting has always been one of the smartest people I know. He thinks deeply about the tools we use and how to help us use them better. He has done much to advance the art of visual thinking.
A case in point is refactoring – the idea that moving a topic within the mind map changes its context. It’s surrounded by a new constellation of ideas and information. That enables us to think about it from a fresh perspective. It’s a powerful tactic, one that I greatly value in my work.
Nick hasn’t blogged about mind mapping software for many years. Instead, he prefers to write white papers that enable him to explore his ideas in greater detail. He also loves to explore how this type of visual thinking intersects with a variety of disciplines. So when I read his paper on mind mapping software and knowledge management, I realized it’s time to learn more about the thinking behind it.
Frey: It’s great to reconnect with you, Nick. Tell me about the paper you produced about knowledge management and mind mapping software. What was the impetus behind that?
Duffill: Well, I’ve been particularly interested in knowledge management techniques. But I’m also interested in reading and exploring other related concepts. I’m actually much more interested in context, in connecting the dots between different techniques and approaches I’ve discovered in my research. Lately, I’ve been trying to relate mind mapping to knowledge management processes, methods and theories.
I came across the SECI knowledge model (socialization, externalization, combination and internalization), which was interesting. But for me, it didn’t really work that well. It didn’t quite align with the way I’ve seen mind mapping software work for knowledge management. So, I had a go at making a revised model, which I think actually works better than their original model.
I also found it useful to step back a bit from mind mapping software and rethink it for what it really is. At the most fundamental level, it’s actually a note-taking tool. If you reframe it in this way, it’s much easier to see what its advantages and shortcomings are. When you’re using it, the methods you employ to gather, organize, refine and develop information and understanding are actually quite similar to note taking.
Frey: I found it interesting that some of the issues that you raised in your paper are the same ones that have been around for a long time, like trying to share maps with other people, who don’t having the same context that the creator had.
Duffill: Yes. If you describe mind mapping software as a note-taking tool, then your expectations about the ability to share your meeting or lecture notes with other people starts from a different place. You probably have more realistic expectations about how useful and complete those notes are.
For example, let’s say you went to a meeting at work and took some notes about what was discussed and the decisions that were reached. Soon after, a colleague who couldn’t make it to that meeting asks what happened there. So you share your notes with him. He will have some pretty realistic expectations that your notes are only going to make a limited amount of sense to him, because they don’t contain the entire context of the meeting. I think that’s a strong parallel with what can happen with mind mapping software in organizations. People expect a mind map to be some sort of a perfect representation of some body of knowledge, a meeting or a project. Actually, it’s just a form of shorthand, a snapshot of it that isn’t all that useful to others.
Frey: What are the differences between tacit and explicit knowledge?
Duffill: Tacit knowledge is very difficult to put into words. It’s the kind of knowledge that you learn by doing things. Things like muscle memory and habits, instincts and things like that. They’re developed through practice and can’t be acquired simply by understanding the theory. So being able to swim or play golf would be a tacit skill. It’s not something you can learn by reading a book. Nobody can write instructions for how to swim that you can use to become a competent swimmer.
Explicit is theoretical knowledge, the theory of how things ought to work. It’s mostly fact-based. You can have explicit knowledge and still not be able to put it into practice or convert it into results. It’s very common for there to be a gap between knowing and doing, between tacit and explicit knowledge.
Frey: In your paper, you talk about the ways in which mind maps help with the socialization of knowledge in a group setting. How would you summarize that in layman’s terms?
Duffill: Well, in a group setting, if people are working together on a mind map, they’re going on the same journey together. They’re learning and understanding at the same time based on the same information and the same ideas. Not only do you end up with a map that people agree on, but that map reminds the participants of how they got there. They recognize the context that’s built into it. It’s the process of working on it together that really creates a value rather than the final map. Which is just a snapshot or a reminder for the people who were there.
It also helps to capture information and ideas in a setting where a team is discussing something that’s sensitive or challenging. The mind map externalizes it and depersonalizes it. People can talk about what’s on the wall rather than looking each other in the eye and disagreeing.
They can argue their points by abstracting that to something that’s on the wall. But everyone’s looking at the same picture.
On the other hand, I’ve been in meetings where we’ve been given a document to read. It’s really tough to have a good conversation based on that. Meetings where you have a picture up on the wall tend to be far more productive. You get to the real meat of the issue a lot quicker. Everybody understands what they’re looking at. That enables a much better quality of conversation.
Frey: There seems to be a powerful dynamic when people see their ideas on screen, in context of everyone else’s ideas, that it really spurs participation from the whole group.
Duffill: Absolutely. Quite right.
Frey: In your paper, you point out that mind maps are a form of shorthand for concisely summarizing information, but they don’t usually represent the tacit knowledge that lies behind it. What problems can that cause?
Duffill: Well, it’s it’s a question of recognition. When you haven’t been part of the process of creating a mind map and you look at it, it only has a limited amount of meaning to you. On the other hand, if you helped to create a map and return to it later, the contents of it bring to mind far more than the visible information in the map that triggered that recognition. It unlocks a lot of memories about stuff that isn’t written in that diagram. If you recall, that’s how mind mapping first started – as a memory-enhancing technique.
I think the biggest challenge for businesses using mind mapping software is that that process of recognition puts all the onus on the reader. So it’s up to the reader of the map, who wasn’t in the meeting or didn’t help to create to say, “I don’t understand this.” Naturally, some people feel a bit stupid admitting that. That’s an uncomfortable place to be. They don’t like being put in that position. So the people who don’t understand a mind map rarely speak up. And the people who created the mind map often don’t spend enough time and effort to make sure it’s inclusive – for everyone else who wasn’t part of the map creation process.
Frey: Even if they do make that effort. It’s, devilishly hard to anticipate how others are going to interpret what you’ve created, isn’t it?
Duffill: That’s right. It’s very hard. The other thing I frequently see is this scenario: People may look at a mind map and think, “That it looks amazing!” It appears that many hours of work went into creating this beautiful visual diagram. That makes them feel that it’s a fait accompli. It’s already finalized, polished and done. It doesn’t feel like they can contribute anything to it.
Frey: In your paper, you state that mind mapping software enhances the mutability of explicit knowledge. How does it do that?
Duffill: The really important part about making good notes is that you make them your own. You decide what to write down and how it should be arranged. You actually interact with knowledge as you build your notes. You really begin to understand something when you start moving it around, rethinking it, trying to see it from different perspectives. And that that’s what mind mapping software lets you do. You’re manipulating it and working with it. Every time you do so, you’re improving your understanding of it.
Frey: We talked earlier about the inherent shortcomings of sharing maps with others. Do you have any thoughts on how software developers ought to approach solving those problems – or are they unsolvable?
Duffill: I think they are solvable. The easiest way is to give people a way of interacting with and understanding a mind map that someone else has created. When you send someone a mind map, there needs to be some way of helping the recipient to explore it and build their own understanding of it. There may be things that that software could do to make that easier.
Frey: As you describe this, Nick, I’m envisioning an audio recording embedded in the map file where the creator can explain its content and the thinking behind it. It would help others to better understand it.
Duffill: Yes, exactly. All they would need to do is record a sentence or two and and explain what the purpose of their mind map is and what they were trying to achieve when they created it. That could go a long way toward helping others understand what’s implied but isn’t explicitly stated in the mind map.
Frey: In your paper, you describe mind maps produced using software as representing a snapshot and a journey, not the destination. So what does that mean in terms of the capabilities and limitations of mind mapping software?
Duffill: The tools that my mapping software provides are quite technical and they help you to manipulate data and do technical stuff. But what people need is more tools to help them build better maps in the first place.
For example, developers tend to put a lot of effort into helping people style their maps, making them look really cool. One common approach is to have a different style for every level of topic in the map. So the central topic has one style, first-level topics have another common style and so forth. But this approach doesn’t add any meaning to the mind map. In fact, it may cause some confusion, because it implies that all of the topics at one level of your map share some sort of commonality, which may not be the case.
In other words, the way the tools are structured prioritizes making a mind map look nice over helping users to build out its content. I think the tools ought to do more to help the process of building maps. That’s what actually creates the value. They should help users focus on the process rather than on the final result.
Frey: Yeah. I’ve noticed that with mind map templates. Most or all of today’s software comes with templates. There are also online content libraries that enable you to download and use existing mind maps as templates. But they don’t provide you with any context of how to use those tools. They’re just there. You have to figure out how to use them.
Duffill: That’s right. The templates can be a useful start for brainstorming in many cases. But the real value comes from how you built that into something that is going to help you to move forward.. As you said, there’s no guidance around how do make sure the template lines up with what your purpose is and what you want to achieve. That’s not reflected in them at all. So templates are often collections of useful keywords to start off with and to help you think about a few things. But in many cases, they’re not going to be exactly what you need for your particular purpose.
Frey: Thanks for your excellent insights, Nick! In closing, do you have any other reflections on what’s happening with mind mapping software today, where it’s headed or where it ought to go?
Duffill: I use it all the time and I find it a very, very productive environment. But I think there are a few issues it still needs to address. One of them has to do with managing large mind maps. Software makes it easy to create big maps. When they get that large, we tend to focus on working around the edges of it – adding and rearranging content at the fringes. But if you want to go back to the middle of the map and rethink something, the software doesn’t offer any tools to help you with that. It can be quite quite a daunting task to, to think about completely disassembling your entire mind map and starting again. So most people don’t do it.
Think about how you typically create a mind map. You start by building a basic structure and you elaborate on it more and more, adding more levels and details to it. But you never dare go back and change its basic structure. So people tend to labor on with maps that are a sign of that.
One way you can see that happening is when you capture a piece of information that really needs to be in two places at once. That’s an indication that’s the basic structure could have been different or could have been better. But you probably don’t believe that totally restructuring a 500-topic mind map, to rebuild it in the way that you now think it ought to be, is an option. I think the software should help you do that more easily.
Another issue I think developers need to address is that the the working zoom level with which you can effectively work with a mind map on screen is quite small. If you zoom in, you just see a few topics with big words and that doesn’t really help you. If you zoom out, you can’t read the wording of the topics any more. So there’s quite a small range in which maps are usable.
That especially becomes a problem when you’re working with a large mind map. This fairly small working window can completely disguise the context that you’re in. You may have no idea where you actually are within the content of a large map.
In other words, the the software makes it easy to create large mind maps. It doesn’t make it quite as easy to work with them. There is certainly value in large maps, as long as you can find the stuff you need quickly enough and understand it with enough context to be useful to you.
Finally, I think mind mapping software helps people to dissect and categorize information. But it’s not as helpful in helping them build up a new understanding of everything they’ve gathered and organized. We’re dealing with a very complex world today. It’s hard to understand situations and issues by just dividing and subdividing them.
You can check out all of Nick’s mind mapping white papers on the Harcourt Consulting website.