Small Business Tips

Concept Mapping Software

Brian Van Buren

Often, the most difficult step in a project is the first one. The success or failure of a project can often be traced back to decisions made at the beginning. A trusted planning process is to create a concept map.

Also, sometimes processes become very complex over time. These projects can become inefficient, and it can be good to take time to map out the processes involved. Concept maps are used to visualize processes and identify stakeholders and tasks to complete.

What is a concept map?

A concept map is a diagram showing the relationships between all parts of a process. It creates a visual representation of knowledge, organized to link the various pieces together. Concept maps can also help brainstorm ideas or organize thoughts to spark creativity.

Concept maps can also identify stakeholders in processes, which helps in assigning tasks and creating schedules. When everyone involved in a project knows what all the elements are, it makes planning simpler.

At the beginning of a project, concept maps can help you consider all the areas you will need to account for. By understanding what elements go into a process, you can better plan and schedule.

As projects proceed, sometimes plans fail and processes become muddled. When you reach this point, it can be good to refer to your original concept map to see where the process failed. You may find you need to update the to get back on track.

Even if you didn’t create a concept map at the start, you can make one at any point in the process. This can help refocus your team and get you back on track.  

Why are concept maps useful?

The best thing about concept maps is that they are visual; they allow you to see information and relationships. Often visual learning is more effective in understanding the information. A wall of text can be off-putting while text bubbles and arrows are more appealing.

Concept maps allow you to quickly and easily see what the central concept is. This concept can be an abstract idea or a concrete goal you want to achieve.

From there you link that central concept to other concepts or categories of concepts. Like the central concept, they can be abstract or concrete. They can create subgroups, and these subgroups can also link when they directly affect each other.

The important part is showing how the different areas link together. You can see through connections what ideas link to specific areas or goals. This makes it easy to understand the process and where the stakeholder’s focus should be.

The benefits of concept maps include greater workplace productivity. According to a 2017 survey, executives find a 20-30% productivity boost from using concept mapping software. It also leads to divergent thinking, which helps with approaching problems more creatively.

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How do you create a concept map?

There are several steps in creating a concept map. Creating one can take place in a single session or over time. Usually one person will be the facilitator who leads the task, and the shareholders contribute to the creation.

The first step is the Preparation step. Here you decide who the participants are and what the focus of the concept map is. The focus can be the name of the project, a goal to achieved, or an idea around which to structure an organization.

In the Generation step, you develop a large list of terms, called statements that address the focus. These terms are in some way connected to the focus. They can be distinct parts of the focus or steps to reach to complete the process.

In the Structuring step, the participants sort the statements into distinct categories with links to the focus and each other. After sorting, the participants then rank the different statements. The value by which you rank items, such as importance or timing, is set at this stage.

In the Representation step, you perform an analysis that locates each statement on a separate point on the map. You determine how the various statements link together and what the order of those statements should be.

In the Interpretation step, the facilitator and the stakeholder group get together to make sure the terminology is correct. You need to make sure that everyone is on board with the names used, and that there is no confusion. You don’t want your engineer and your graphic designer using the same term for different things.

Finally, in the Utilization step you use the map to move the project forward. It functions as a visual framework as well as diagram to show where the project is going. If needed, the stakeholders can return to alter or update the concept map.

Software for creating concept maps

In years past, concept maps were hand-drawn on whiteboards or easel pads, but now we use computers to create them. Using programs is much better, as you can sharthe concept map over time and distance. If you need to make changes later, they are easy to make and save with concept map software.

There are many programs that are either specifically designed to create concept maps or have features that create them. There are a wide variety of features and price ranges in these programs, including free-to-use software. Depending on your business, software with more features or greater utility may justify paying a premium.

  • Visio: Microsoft Visio is a fully-featured visual design program that easily integrates with Office 365.  There are different payment plans for web-based or desktop versions.
  • Lucidchart: This program has many features, and the basic program is free for individual use. The paid version includes even more features.
  • Ayoa: A concept map program with project management features. The free version works well for individuals, but organizations will need a subscription
  • SmartDraw: With a simple, easy-to-learn interface, this program is great for beginners. The annual payment plans are better suited for larger teams.
  • Office Suite: If you already have Microsoft Office 365, several of the programs can create passable concept maps. While not as good as maps made with Visio, concept maps made using Word, Excel or PowerPoint can do the job.

Final thoughts about concept maps

Concept maps can make the most important step in a project the best planned out. It can also refocus a project when complexities arise. Concept maps are an incredible tool that can be the centerpiece of any project.

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