Computerworld

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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Expanding Applications

Indeed, mind mapping has already moved beyond its roots as an authoring tool to a level where groups create content collaboratively, says Mark Levitt, an IDC analyst. The next iteration, he says, "is making this available online, either for real-time access for participating collaboratively or after the fact, by e-mailing [or] posting on a Web site or in a shared file system".

Activity on a number of fronts is generating interest. Open-source mind-mapping software available through the FreeMind project is doing its part to "prime the market", Drakos says. Mindjet has partnered with WebEx Communications to bring business mapping to online meetings, as well as with Salesforce.com to enable salespeople to create visual dashboards for viewing CRM data; it also just released a Macintosh version of its Mind percent­Manager tool. In addition, vendors are working on server-based products and exploring on-demand options.

At Bristow Helicopters, mind mapping is used for "virtually all business-strategy projects", Cloggie says. Bristow has also used MindGenius for managing employee-retention efforts, and the company always uses it when introducing new aircraft types.

"We have a [mind map] template that's 90 percent usable for any aircraft type. It's not just a checklist; it's a tool to help the engineer understand the processes by which he'll bring the aircraft in," Cloggie says. "Through it, he understands the interface with manufacturing, among different departments within the company, and with the Civil Aviation Authority."

Educators have been early evangelists of mind mapping, particularly in the UK. At Giles Brook Combined School in Milton Keynes, England, teachers use Brain Mine from Neural Matters in several ways, headmaster Philip Scull says. One is to test children's grasp of material in areas such as science and history. A teacher constructs a mind map before teaching a unit to determine what students know in a subject area, and then again after the unit is taught to see what they've learned.

"The great thing about [Brain Mine] is that you can brainstorm ideas, then rearrange them as they make sense," says Scull. "If you're designing an exam, you can isolate the most important details and revise them as needed."

The real strength of mind-mapping software, Drakos says, is not in its ability to quickly organize large amounts of information in meaningful ways, but in the ability to subsequently revise and reorganize that information.

Users can cluster ideas, move those clusters whenever and wherever they make sense, and embed files from outside the program. "Once you have a structure with a couple of hundred nodes, you can restructure as needed; you can't really do that with other kinds of tools," Drakos says.

Todd Becker, a staff scientist heading the delivery systems group at California-based Genencor International, agrees that mapping's revision capabilities are a strength. "We like the fact that you can continually change and modify [maps]," Becker says. "When you're working on a project or knowledge base or an interface, your conceptualizing is always changing -- the categories you start with usually aren't the ones you stick with."

Genencor, a biotech company focusing on industrial biochemicals, started using Mindjet's MindManager in a knowledge management collaboration between R&D and business development. It soon expanded into IT, manufacturing, marketing and sales, for use in project planning, database organization, meetings and more. The IT group uses MindManager for annual project planning and to justify expenditure requests to executives. Meanwhile, in one case, manufacturing used it to build a database that tracks production forecasts, standard costs and products.

"This spread like fire throughout the company. We actually use maps on our [Lotus] Notes database as entry points to portals," Becker says.

As key business strategies are developed around mind maps, the technology will need to move beyond its status as a desktop product to better facilitate collaboration, users say. In fact, Cloggie was recently invited, along with other mind-map software users from various industries, to speak on this need before the Scottish Parliament.

"We talked about the need to take [mind maps] from being a personal tool to a cross-departmental business tool; you can't extract their true, cross-business abilities if you can't work on maps simultaneously," Cloggie says. "[With real-time collaboration], you can have experts develop templates and facilitators work with different teams to create maps, with the business as a whole sharing them."

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A view for collaboration

Managing a large group of scientists, jokes Milton Smith, can be like "herdidng cats". That's particularly so if the scientists whose work you're overseeing are based in medical schools and private- and public-sector labs scattered throughout the US and Canada. The organizations Smith is working with make up the Advanced Medical Countermeasures Consortium, a group developing a drug-delivery therapy to serve as a first-response stabilizer for people exposed to avian flu H5N1, anthrax or mustard gas. To organize and delegate the research that's being conducted, Smith and his partners use Mindjet's MindManager.

While research on the therapy has received some federal funding, thus far the consortium has had no backing from private drug companies. "By using universities, we had a low-cost method of doing research and development, but we had to manage a complex task involving many components," Smith says. Smith is a physician and president of Amaox Ltd, a biotech company established in the US in 1992 to study the therapeutic benefits of liposomes and that now acts as a bridge between government agencies and universities for the consortium effort. "The only way I could manage all these collaborators and the components they were working on was to use mind mapping," he says.

In addition to Amaox, collaborators working on the Stimal (signal transduction inhibition antioxidant liposomes) drug-delivery therapy include the US Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense, AFG Biosolutions Inc and the medical schools of six US universities. The maps detail which institution is working on which aspect of the Stimal project, timelines for research, and results.

Using the maps to manage the aspects of the project related to mustard gas, for example, Smith and crew can simultaneously review the results of the one school's animal-tested inhalation model and another's in vitro tests on cells. Capturing results with MindManager, says Smith, lets his team review the tests from a high-level view and develop a systemic understanding of the problem.

"It's much easier for everyone to visually scan [efforts and results] rather than plow through long reports," Smith says. "Linear tools don't really capture relationships the way mapping does."