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Personal toolkit: Mapping the mind’s eye

At a meeting one day, I found myself sitting between two eminent KM thinkers. Both men were rapidly taking notes directly into their laptops. One was using PersonalBrain from TheBrain Technologies. The other was using MindManager from Mindjet. My colleagues raved passionately about each of those tools, as do many people who use either one.

Both PersonalBrain and MindManager deserve their own reviews as useful tools for knowledge work, but seeing them side by side emphasizes the importance of how we represent and organize information and ideas, as well as the different ways individuals make sense of their learning environments and communicate with others.

The map is not the landscape

At first glance, the two applications look quite similar in many ways. Taxonomic branchings identify descending parent-child relationships between items, describing conceptual landscapes of concepts, processes, objects, etc. MindManager's "nodes" and "branches" expand from the central concept in a radial hierarchy. PersonalBrain's "thoughts" and "links" re-center on the chosen item, with parent, child, sibling and lateral "jump" links rearranged accordingly. In both cases, items can be categorized, linked or attached to documents or data, with embedded notes in the item itself. Items can be linked beyond their main parent-child relationships, but the different ways the two applications handle this begins to differentiate them.

Of course, this text description I have just given, while technically accurate, is almost completely useless, isn't it? The whole point of graphically representing knowledge is to offer better ways to present ideas and provoke understanding when expository representations just don't get the job done.

Maps, metaphors and stories are ancient methods that people have always used to negotiate meaning. Though only MindManager refers to its documents as "maps," (PersonalBrain creates "brains") maps are workable metaphors for both applications.

A map is not the same as the landscape it represents, but it is a way to reduce an infinite amount of information down to the most concise representation at the necessary level of abstraction. The infinite landscape can be internal as well as external; when one individual tries to convey the richness of an experience or an innovation to another, maps represent a shared, virtual landscape.

The technique of mind mapping by hand, on which MindManager is based, has been traced back at least as far as the third century. The less linear layout of a brain is more reminiscent of concept maps developed in the 1960s, in which the relationships between items are as important as the items themselves, and all items are created more or less equal.

Both companies have consistently improved their products, and both have aggressively moved into enterprise markets. While Mindjet has focused on site licensing of MindManager, a desktop application, to create a common platform, TheBrain has focused its energy on its portal product, BrainEKP, as a single interface to enterprise information. PersonalBrain has languished somewhat over the past few years, although it maintains a loyal following.

MindManager 6.0

Depending on the layout you choose, a mind map can look more and more like a network, but really just looking at the tree from a different angle. While the layout of a map can appear quite freeform, the hierarchical structure makes MindManager very useful for organizing disparate thoughts—or for brainstorming thoughts made more obvious by their absence on the developing taxonomy.

MindManager is great for simplifying complicated issues or processes, and the software's features support that in many ways, with brainstorming tools, categories, graphics and project management tools. Ultimately, MindManager emphasizes presentation. As such, mind maps are meant to be shared. Although the map can evolve, a consistent appearance gives team members a common document for reference and discussion.

With the release of Version 6.0 late last year, the tool includes more powerful formatting options, including the ability to balance a map layout. MindManager has excellent integration with Microsoft office. Maps can be exported to Word outlines, PowerPoint presentations and Visio drawings, while Outlook objects and Excel data ranges can be synchronized. Maps can also be converted almost instantly to complete Web sites using MindManager templates.

The software is also integrated with popular tools such as Salesforce.com. Mindjet recently announced MindManager Instant Meeting, hosted by WebEx, which allows distributed team members to instantly launch a Web meeting and begin sharing the MindManager application to quickly move from initial brainstorming to detailed planning and implementation.

PersonalBrain 3.0

Where MindManager emphasizes presentation, PersonalBrain emphasizes navigation. This is an important distinction.

PersonalBrain works very well for brainstorming, although it really excels at discovering and visualizing the fundamental interconnectedness of complex networks. A brain can have up to 1 million thoughts. Relationships start out hierarchical, but any thought can have multiple dependencies in parent, child and lateral links. In other words, different paths will take you to the same thought, depending on context. That is much closer to the way people really think.

As with MindManager, items can be created rapidly in PersonalBrain, by typing, dragging, spidering or importing—linking to files, sites, Outlook items or even applications. Both thoughts and links can be assigned to types or categories. The newest version, renamed TheBrain Desktop Edition, has emerged in beta form. It represents a significant cross-platform re-engineering of the original concept.

The new version automatically presents a real-time "brain" view of an existing hard disk or server, making it an alternate interface to the whole file structure—allowing multiple paths to be added, but retaining the right-click functionality of Windows Explorer. Any new thoughts automatically create new files or folders, and the links can be read as HTML pages even without the application. Among other enhancements, Desktop Edition can display extended views, with many more branches visible, for a bird's eye view.

Different maps for different folks

Both products have many more features than I have listed here, but this should give you an idea of how they diverge in their approaches. Depending on user preferences--such as for right or left brain thinking--different people will probably feel much more comfortable with one or the other. But that doesn't mean they should only use the one they are most comfortable with. We choose a linear or non-linear approach based on our personal preferences, but also to compensate for our blind spots, or based on the task at hand, or based on how best to communicate important information and ideas with others.

Finally, a personal note. This will be my last Personal Toolkit column. I'm grateful to KMWorld for giving me the freedom over the past five years to let my mind wander, and I thank readers for their many comments, which made writing this column so much fun.

Steve Barth's new website will be reflectedknowledge.com. His current website is www.global-insight.com

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