Business on the map

When Bristow Helicopters started losing market share in the 1990s, executives moved to improve business processes across the England-based company. "We needed to change facilities and maintenance processes, improve the efficiencies of the staff, improve the interface between sales and clients," says John Cloggie, technical director at the European business unit of Bristow Group, which provides helicopter services to the oil and gas industry.

A key goal of this re-engineering effort was to cut several million dollars from Bristow Helicopters' operating budget. The company managed the project using MindGenius, "mind-mapping" software from Scotland-based Gael Ltd. The product helped Bristow conduct a SWOT analysis (an assessment of its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) and carve out various process re-engineering tasks and delegate them to appropriate groups. Each team then took the high-level version of the map and created its own subcategories, tasks and deadlines for its designated work segment. Since beginning the project in 2004, Cloggie says, the company has managed to cut $US6 million from its operating budget.

"Mind mapping, of course, didn't directly create our $6 million savings, but it did allow us to control the project while it was being delivered," he says. "The speed with which you can map processes and capture knowledge is a huge return."

Mind mapping has been around for centuries, but it didn't garner much attention until psychologist Tony Buzan began to promote information visualization techniques in the 1970s. A mind map is a diagram that radially arranges words and images around a central theme. It's based on the cognitive theory that many people more easily learn and recall information through graphical representations. Mind mapping -- increasingly called business mapping as it makes inroads into corporate settings -- is used for a range of problem-solving and brainstorming activities, including managing projects, mapping business processes, creating workflows, planning events and programming software.

Though people can create mind maps using pen and paper, they're increasingly using software that streamlines map creation. These tools let users choose among map templates designed for specific tasks, enter a central topic, and then brainstorm and enter relevant information, such as tasks, timelines and people involved. Each segment can have any number of subcategories, which can result in extremely comprehensive, multilayered maps. However, those sections can also be "scoped" to provide just the detailed view a user needs.

To make maps memorable, users can add colour, icons and images. And to make them relevant, they can embed hyperlinks to URLs, connect to news services and attach files such as spreadsheets, audio and video. The map becomes a knowledge base for a particular project, business process or event. Maps, in turn, can be converted into other presentation formats, such as Microsoft Word or PowerPoint files.

Typically categorized as a productivity application, mind mapping represents a small market, says Nikos Drakos, a Gartner analyst. San Francisco-based Mindjet is considered the largest of the mind-mapping vendors, earning about $30 million in 2005. One reason for the market's small size, Drakos says, is that the packages aren't available from large, mainstream vendors, so they don't get the exposure that they might as part of larger offerings. Also, users are accustomed to the linear presentation of, say, Word documents and are slow to try new technologies. And mind-mapping tools, like many productivity applications, are currently desktop products, so they don't yet allow for simultaneous collaboration or data-level integration with back-office applications that might inform map-managed projects.

However, says Drakos, as the world becomes more electronically collaborative, mind mapping is positioned to break out. "The story starts with personal productivity, but with the move towards online collaboration and co-creation, it's a story that's about to get much more interesting," he says.

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