The Power of Concepts Maps

MemorySystemsAs a long time conceptual data modeller, it has become quite obvious over the years, that the most valuable contribution of the 'data' modelling process to many successful information sytems projects on which I've worked, has little to do with computers or databases per se, rather it is mostly about a process of understanding a piece of the world of interest in terms of the 'things' that occupy that world and how those things (products, contracts, accounts, locations, events etc), both concrete and abstract, relate to one another.  In other words the 'rules' that govern that piece of the world, in the particular 'context of interest'.  Such models are not only relatively easily translated into a form that computers can use, but are generally useful for:

  • Human visualisation and understanding of a subject, or a problem space.
  • As a basis for common agreement on concepts that relate to a subject or problem area (i.e. all talking the same language).
  • For exploring new ways of thinking about a problem area, precipitating innovation.

Take away the 'data' and 'computer' context and such models become concepts models or 'concepts maps'.  Or to put it another way, conceptual data models are a type of concepts map used to help design computer based information systems.

Theatre Concepts Map

Above is a very simple example of a 'theatre' concepts map.  A rectangle with rounded corners represents a concept, with the proposed relationship between concepts (propositions) described on directional links. This kind of linking of ideas is reminiscent of 'mind maps' ( , but whereas a mind map typically focuses on a single concept, concepts maps focus on the interrelationships between, or 'rules' that connect many concepts that occupy an area of interest or knowledge.  

The second example map above, of the simple 'theatre' concepts map redefines the notion of a 'Theatre goer' by introducing two new concepts, 'Ticket' and 'Attendance'.  These new concepts and propositions are typical of the kind of business exploratory, 'what if' thinking that a concepts map can help to leverage.  In this case it is the purchasing of an 'entitlement' to attend a performance that is important in a business context, with a 'Ticket' representing a purchased entitlement.  Having defined such a view, its practicality and flexbility can be examined by 'playing it back' through different possible scenarios. For example if a (physical) ticket is lost or stolen should the purchaser still be enitled to attend a performance?  In the case of sickness (for example) should an 'entitlement to attend' be for any performance or only for a specific performance?

Subsequently the map can be modified to represent the 'rules' that better reflects the required business model.

Theatre concepts map corrected 

The above map modified some of the propositions to clarify that an 'attendance entitlement' is for a specific performance, and that the purchase is for a physical ticket that entitles the holder to attend a performance. So if the ticket is lost the entitlement is also lost.  However, it is important to understand that concepts maps aren't intended to capture detailed business rules, such as might be precisely defined by a specific business rules language (such as SVBR, There could be a temptation to make the notation more complex in an attempt to do so, which I suggest would immediately destroy its easy accessability by non specialists, which would be entirely counterproductive. Again, I come back to the 'mind map', as the concepts map is useful in being a 'more structured' mind map for visualising and exploring a subject area rather than as a design blue print. Indeed the 'cognitive leverage' afforded by concepts maps is based on well founded theory and research ( see ), an important part of which is the simplicity of the notation, which avoids learning curves and 'getting in the way'.

In my experience concepts maps have proven to be an incredibly powerful tool for leveraging innovative thinking, not only my own, but more importantly by providing a visual focus for 'what if' exploration by solution groups.

For those that are interested I suggest having a look at the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition site ( ), perhaps also making use of the free CMap too, which is available there ( ).