Knowledge mapping technologies

By Jack Park

Jack Park (biography)

How can you improve your thinking – alone or in a group? How can mapping ideas help you understand the relationships among them? How can mapping a conversation create a new reality for those involved?

In what follows, I draw on the work of Daniel Kahneman’s (2011) best-selling book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which explains how human thinking occurs at different speeds, from the very fast thinking associated with face-to-face conversation to the very slow thinking associated with assembling information resources into encyclopedias. I use those ideas in my descriptions of knowledge maps.

Three kinds of knowledge maps

I describe three kinds of idea (knowledge) maps, organized from fastest thinking (lowest cognitive overhead to put ideas on paper) to slower thinking, where the map requires deeper, reflective thinking:

  • Mind maps
  • Concept maps
  • Dialogue/Issue maps

Mind maps

At the lowest level, by which I mean, lowest cognitive overhead, you just want to see ideas in relation to other ideas, with no particular interest in what those relations are. Think: brainstorming or rapid note taking.

As the image shows, you simply identify a core topic, and then draw spider-web-like lines radiating outward from that, identifying related topics along the way. In the image, the core topic is “tennis”. Radiating around it are the principal topics which are thought to relate to the core topic, such as “scoring”, and “shots”, each of which is further connected to more topics.

Public domain image from Wikipedia, Mind Map; Creative Commons BY-SA 2.5

Mind maps do not have to be as artistic as the image illustrated. You can construct them by simply drawing a circle around a topic near the middle of a page, then add key points you want to record:

  • Write points in various places near the central topic
  • Underline or circle each
  • Then connect the underline or circle to the key topic.

You have choices: the easiest, lowest cognitive overhead approach is to just write the new topics anywhere. If you feel like thinking a bit more deeply, consider organizing those first topics say, some on the left side, some on the right side, especially if those on the left have some meaning that is different from those on the right. As an example, if you are thinking about planning a trip, put the requirements on the left, then plan the trip’s itinerary on the right.

In a mind map you do not think about the meanings of those lines which connect topics. You are only capturing relationships among topics.

Concept maps

Concept maps are the next step following mind maps and are used to begin to think in more specifics about concepts and their relations.

The image below shows a concept map’s structure. The map is more formal than a mind map: it now relies on circles and carefully drawn lines. The terminology of concept maps gives names to the circles (nodes), and to the lines (arcs). Specifically, some of the arcs in the image are labeled: they have names for the relationships they represent.

Public domain image from Wikipedia, Concept Map; original from NASA

You can hand sketch a concept map, or use varieties of available tools to do so. You can draw arcs which have arrows on both ends, or just on one end. In the example above, the key concept is “electricity” and a connected labeled arc tells us that “electricity is a form of energy”. That is, concept maps can represent factual statements. Looking in the other direction from “energy”, we can follow an unlabeled arc to learn about the sources of energy.

Dialogue/Issue Maps

Now consider a specialized concept map platform, one organized around thoughts in terms of questions, answers, and pro and con arguments. If you create such a map during a live conversation, it’s called a dialogue map. The very same kind of map can be created while thinking about a problem or taking notes during research; that is called an issue map.

I crafted the issue map below while reading a Paul Krugman OpEd: based on reported food riots. The narrative takes apart the issue into three primary reasoning branches: long term trends, bad luck, and bad policy. It then dives deeper into causal factors associated with each of those branches.

Issue map of a Paul Krugman OpEd on food riots (drawn by Jack Park using Compendium)

The issue map uses images to signal questions (question mark), answers (light bulb), confirmation (plus sign; not shown in the image), counter-argument (minus sign). The relationships do not have to be labelled as they are easily inferred from the general semantics of an issue map. An answer can improve on another answer.

An open source tool called Compendium, available from the Open University at is useful for this kind of work.


Of course, the methods can be combined. For example, mind maps are a terrific way to conduct small meetings; you can start by sketching ideas with “Post It” notes on a board, then draw lines among them, and the outcome can be recorded through photographs or other means. For many uses, mind maps alone are sufficient to kickstart larger conversations. Those conversations can be recorded into dialogue maps and shared among participants. Overall, knowledge mapping technologies provide important, sometimes crucial means of communication among stakeholders, especially where heterogeneity of cognitive styles, world views, and core backgrounds exist.

What has your experience been in mapping your ideas for yourself? With your colleagues?

To find out more:
Buzan, T. (2011). Tony Buzan – Inventor of mind mapping. Online:

Conklin, J. (nd). A Tool for Wicked Problems: Dialogue Mapping FAQs. Online:

Novak., J. D. and Cañas, A. J. (2008). The Theory Underlying Concept Maps and How to Construct and Use Them. Technical Report, Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC), CmapTools 2006-01, Revised 2008-01. Online:

Kahneman, Daniel. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, United States of America.

Biography: Jack Park is a computer scientist working in the fields of artificial and collective intelligence. He designs and builds software platforms for knowledge gardening. He created, edited, and co-authored the book ‘XML Topic Maps: Creating and Using Topic Maps for the Web’.

15 thoughts on “Knowledge mapping technologies”

  1. When I have used mind maps with a diverse group of people from different organisations and backgrounds, the emphasis upon using images and colour (as well as varying the dimension and depth of the words and symbols, etc.) has stimulated people’s creativity and helped them uncover new ways of looking at things, discover new ways of joining up the work they do together, and generate new and innovative solutions generally. This is an aspect of the mind mapping technique that is valuable and should not be overlooked. Unfortunately, however, it is an aspect that is dismissed as childish by some (which is their loss, I think).

  2. I like the categorisation of tools by cognitive overhead. Are you aware of any attempts at a comprehensive typology/choosing aid for knowledge maps?

  3. Nice list, yet qualitative cause and effect working is missing as it allows to directly translate arguments into ‘maps’ to then analyze them through matrices. Available web based for free via

    • I think it is a good observation that qualitative cause and effect is not covered in my post; a case can be made that scope limitations of what I intended to cover left that on the sidelines. But, deeper probing into the nature of graph theory allows us to see that acyclic digraphs yield to matrix manipulation from which a good many systems-theoretic models emerge. That’s an important point and thank you for bringing it into this conversation. I am also happy that you suggest your software platform; indeed, if we could expand on this forum, there are many reasons to explore the space of available systems modeling software opportunities.

  4. Thanks very much for this valuable contribution. It’s important for participants to have a view of their conversations. How you do advise, though, working with maps to strengthen group dynamics, especially when negotiating differences in status hierarchy and privileged knowledge forms.

    • Thank you for your kind words. Dialogue/issue mapping is based on Issue-based Information Systems (IBIS) which advocates a shared view when a group conversation (sometimes between warring parties!) is being facilitated. The IBIS mechanism, with dialogue maps, has been shown, and is well documented, to tame wild group dynamics. Indented online forums come close to that; linear chat rooms, not so much. My advice, I got by paying attention to Jeff Conklin (one of my links) is to, where possible, use a trained facilitator to maintain an live dialogue map. For more, find the book “The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices”.

      • I’d like to expand on my earlier reply. In the context of conversations among participants of mixed rank, profile, or anything, it is worth exploring the well-documented literature on virtual worlds. The social dynamics associated with engagement with and behind avatars is well documented. The book “Total Engagement: Using Games and Virtual Worlds to Change the Way People Work and Businesses Compete” by Byron Reeves and J. Leighton Read is a good starting point.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: