Business Mapping: Brain Gain

New software creates visual ''business maps'' that help people easily grasp information during face-to-face presentations, Web-based conferences, a...
Scott LeibsMay 28, 2002

“What a waste it is to lose one’s mind,” Dan Quayle once famously intoned. He meant to say, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” and in botching the quote actually proved his point. But could he have communicated his idea more effectively?

A small software firm called Mindjet LLC says yes. Minds should not be wasted, Mindjet argues, particularly in the workplace, where many companies’ fortunes depend on the ideas and insights of their employees. Yet anyone who has ever endured the mind-numbing tedium of the corporate “brainstorming” session knows that eliciting, evaluating, and acting on those brainstorms is something few companies do well. Mindjet says its MindManager family of products can capture and organize all those insights, and the data that surrounds them, and present it all in a way that’s superior to the whiteboard scrawls and legal-pad doodles that are often the sole legacy of corporate spit-balling.

Based on research into how the brain creates ideas and processes information, MindManager software produces “business maps,” visual representations of — well, almost anything: ideas, process flow data, organizational structures, marketing plans. It can facilitate presentations and Web-based conferences, store unstructured data in a series of nested maps, and, thanks to a new version released last month, play a larger role in project management. One fan, Dr. Maxwell Anderson, vice president and dental director for dental benefits firm Washington Dental Service, says he uses MindManager to manage an entire company — a for-profit subsidiary known as C3 Scientific Corp.

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“I create a master map that then links to submaps for legal, planning, and every other function,” he says. The result is a repository of corporate data, everything from the business plan to stock certificates, that resides in a cluster of nested maps.

More often the software is used for specific planning and presentation functions. At Consolidated Edison in New York, management and union members collaborate on a project known as PITT, or Process Innovation Through Teams, an ongoing effort to improve service delivery. Union members, many of whom have little or no experience in presenting their ideas before large groups, use MindManager to capture their ideas and present them to other PITT participants. Robert Donohue, senior vice president for electric operations at the utility, says that the software facilitates the describing of a problem, the activities that must be taken into account to solve it, the proposed solutions, the cost, and the potential cost-benefit. “MindManager makes it easy for people to grasp the issue,” he says, “because it depicts how various components are linked together and interact. And you don’t have to overwhelm people with extensive notes.”

ConEd uses Mindjet software at the senior-executive level as well. “The ability to see a pictorial representation of a complex system,” Donohue says, “really improves understanding of whatever issue you’re addressing.”

Bettina Jetter, Mindjet’s CEO and co-founder, says that presenting ideas and information in the form of maps is useful because “maps have a hierarchical structure that makes them easy to understand and respond to.” The visual element also plays a big role, although Jetter admits that the actual maps produced by the software are not works of art. Mindjet will add “multidimensionality” and other enhancements later this year.

Jetter says the MindManager products “are like a Swiss Army knife — they can be used for many things.” That can be a disadvantage initially, as customers struggle to understand just what the software is for. “That’s especially true in America,” says AMR Research Inc. senior vice president Bruce Richardson, “where we favor the individual contributor over consensus. This is a great collaboration tool, but America is less enamored of collaboration than other countries.”

Mindjet is betting that its own collaboration with Groove Networks Inc., a software company founded by Lotus Notes creator Ray Ozzie, will help it gain a stronger presence in the United States. Its pricing should also help: users pay between $49 and $269 per copy, depending on functionality, with volume discounts available.

Competition looms from larger companies such as WebEx Communications and PlaceWare, smaller companies like TheBrain Technologies, and, as the company moves into project management, from very large companies, most notably Microsoft. But Jetter says that Mindjet’s focus on the upfront planning aspect of project management makes it unique. In fact, it currently has a partnership agreement with Microsoft, and Jetter says that despite recent enhancements that take Mindjet further into the mainstream of project management, she doesn’t expect that partnership to suffer.