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10 May 2007

Re-drawing the old mappa mentis

We have been strong proponents of visualization techniques for intelligence analysis for quite a while now. Our particular flavour of experience have taught us the need to externalize and interact with concepts and ideas in the abstract at a distance removed from the confines of one’s own thoughts or pen. (Not anywhere near a unique idea, expressed perhaps first and best by Doug Engelbart in his initial description of the tool that would become the first word processor.)

We have however been deeply ambivalent regarding the very commonly taught practice of mind mapping, which has proliferated from the world of business and planning into the core body of analytic tradecraft. We consider it in the class of methodologies which help provide rigour for new analysts, but which can become a practice done for the “buzz worthiness” of the thing (or simply for form’s sake) rather than for the value the results may bring – especially when used in a team efforts. Admittedly, in the latter case there are arguments for emphasizing the value of the process as integrating exercise for the group, regardless of the final output. Overall, however, the tool has typically offered only marginal utility in most contexts – and in others, has been cynically exploited by many a consultant to bill additional hours from naive cients.

Among the reasons we have found mind mapping to be limited has been the overly restrictive nature of most automated tools designed to enable capture and display of these tasks. Those of us used to working with other, more freeform visualization tools capable of non-orthogonical plotting and multi-axis linkages find the comparatively crippled formal mind mapping tools quite irritating. (Although unfortunately, few of the more robust visualization and charting tools offer the relatively minor modifications necessary to make them effective as mind mapping software.)

We have also particularly found that most tools quickly break down in group settings – one of the few applications where the technique can provide some value. Most often, we have seen such efforts devolve back into the old butcher’s paper or whiteboard approaches.

Shloky, however, points us to a new tool that attempts at least to solve this latter criticism, by enabling groupware functionality across distributed teams. Whether or not this will enable wider and more effective use of the technique remains to be seen. It is good nonetheless to see progress in creating new approaches to the automation of common tradecraft.

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