Sensemaking through knowledge mapping

Knowledge maps fascinate me.  I started out repelled by certain visual representations of information in my first career (in international development); I just detested a particular working paper of one important organization which had as its cover design a project management flow chart.  Yet I live by organization charts, and I can’t keep away from the Literature-Map, which is a dynamic vjsual representation of how likely people associated with the site are to like sets of authors.

Now I have been asked to teach concept mapping to students in one of our doctoral programs.  I often wonder why more librarians aren’t involved in teaching information/knowledge mapping techniques, which I find to be very useful tools in the sensemaking process.  In this post, I’d like to begin to dissect the broad field of knowledge mapping, exploring several types of mapping tools and their applications.

There are many different ways to slice and dice information or knowledge mapping tools, and a lot of different names for them (see for example WikiIT for other terms and ways to think about types of knowledge maps).  “Mind mapping” is a term most people in education are familiar with, in either the strict (and trademarked) sense defined by Tony Buzan ( and Tony Buzan, Inventor of Mind Mapping) or the more common usage by a multiplicity of software companies in the project management market.  Concept mapping and argument mapping/issue mapping/dialogue mapping are tools for special purposes, much less well know outside their niches.  I prefer the overall term knowledge mapping to information mapping.  Others prefer knowledge cartography (Okada, Buckingham Shum, and Sherbourne, 2008), a term which incorporates knowledge rather than information and avoids the already claimed KM acronym.

What knowledge mapping tools share is use of the mapping metaphor to bring relationships into prominence.  Few words are used, and therefore they must be well chosen.  Relationships may be indicated by labels (concept maps), or just by proximity or connecting lines.  In some maps, pictures or symbols add meaning.

I like the way David Hyerle (2009) categorizes mapping (or visual) tools into those oriented toward facilitating creativity, those meant for analysis, and those meant for synthesis.  To these I add a category of tools for organizing large collections of resources.  It’s possible to break these categories down further, but I think these provide enough for some orientation to their value.

In this post, I want to give an overview of each kind of tool; in later posts, I will discuss each in more detail.

Mapping tools for creativity are often called mind mappers.  While there are now many software tools, the activity can easily and sometimes more productively be done manually.  A large whiteboard, a wall of whiteboard paint, flip chart paper taped up on a wall, or plenty of sticky notes can all provide great media, and some people find them more conducive to the thinking process than software.

Source: My Thoughts Mind Map

How to Mind Map

This map shows use of color, images and interconnections, all typical features of mind maps.  (“How to Mind Map – MyThoughts for Mac” from MyThoughtsMindMaps’ Photostream, used under a Creative Commons Attribution – NonCommercial – NoDerivs 2.0 license

Analytic maps often resemble visual versions of outlines.  They can be applied to research projects, or indeed any kind of project, breaking down the project or process into steps to be taken. I teach the library research process using a double-sided map, wherein the left side is the library research process and the right side the outline of the paper:

Research plan map

Research plan map


Maps for synthesis include a number of subcategories such as concept mapping and mapping of complex, iterative dialogues.  The latter can be used in decision making processes where stakeholders have different values as well as varying points of view, and where it isn’t possible to define a problem in a simple fashion, without multiple attempts at understanding the nature of the problem itself.  Concept mapping is similar in that, in the process of understanding a complex field, one makes multiple attempts to state the problem as well as to identify the proper constituent parts and their relationships, which may have complex interrelationships rather than simple hierarchical correspondences.

In this concept map I made to explain concept maps to students, note that each relationship is labeled.  This map shows fairly simple relationships, but entities in concept maps can have multiple parents and circular relationships:

Concept map

(You can see a better version of this here).

Maps for organizing large collections Most librarians have personal sets of resources.  Some of us are satisfied by keeping them in notebook form; others, more visually oriented (like me), like the map style but have collections that are too large for static maps.  For these collections, dynamic, web-type software can be extremely useful.  Like concept mapping software, this allows you to make connections every which way (the technical term).  On a static map, you’d go farther and farther out on a branch, or scroll farther down a page, losing the view of the rest of your map; in a dynamic map (like the literature map linked in the first paragraph), the map re-centers at every click, giving you a new view oriented around your current focus.

It’s hard to imagine how these work without seeing them in action, but here are two screen shots from one of my all-purpose webs, from a section on mapping tools:


Mind mapping

The first image is centered around the term “mind mapping;” in the second, I have clicked on its child, “programs,” giving a related but different view:


As Tom Anders observed on a comment on an earlier post of mine, it’s hard to find one mapping tool that could serve all purposes equally well, and that’s frustrating.  But this is how I divide up the world of knowledge mapping:

Tools for

  • Creativity
  • Analysis
  • Synthesis
  • Organizing large collections


Hyerle, D. (2009). Visual tools for transforming information into knowledge. Thousand Oaks, CA : Corwin Press.

Okada, Alexandra, Buckingham Shum, Simon, and Sherbourne, Tony. (Eds.). (2008). Knowledge cartography : software tools and mapping techniques. London, England: Springer.




















































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































Year for Productivity: Session 1: What is PKM?


Welcome to the very first session in our year-long look at Productivity for Academic Librarians and Researchers!  We are excited you are checking us out and hope that you stick around and participate throughout the year.  You are welcome to post insights or questions to any of the information we provide here, and you are still very welcome if you prefer to be a silent participant.  The “exercises” that we suggest at the end of each session offer each of you the opportunity to spend some active time with the topic of the day. We hope they might spark ideas, changes or goals to implement in your own lives and suggest to your students, coworkers and faculty.

One housekeeping point.  Several people have reported difficulties subscribing to our blog via email.  Feedburner has some glitches when it comes to accepting email addresses that contain special characters other than @ or a period.  Using a different email address may resolve any problems.  I have heard from several individuals that gmail accounts seem to be working well.

We begin the discussion of productivity by introducing of a concept that may be new to some of you. Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) is a field of study, an amalgamation of skills and tools to aid in knowledge creation, growth, storage and dissemination.  It is also a label that is used by many to describe how they manage their lives more effectively and productively.  I wrote a blog entry on the definition of PKM back in November of last year which you can review here.

PKM is a personal tool, and personal choice and personal learning are fundamental to its practice.  Knowledge management (KM) without the modifier is assumed to be an organizational practice; it is often seen as yet another way for management to try to squeeze still more out of us workers.  While management may reap some of the benefits from increases in productivity that result from effective use of PKM skills and tools, that is incidental to our focus here.  It is by stepping back and examining the process of learning and its dissemination that we can better understand how to help our faculty, coworkers and students to become more effective as well.

When productivity is discussed, there are a lot of different kinds of terms used.  We hear experts arguing over the concept of information overload; librarians are widely discussing the ever growing field of data management; business and computer specialists are talking at length about the importance of an organization internally implementing efficient KM systems; and philosophers and historians discuss the wisdom of past visionaries.

Perhaps it would help us focus on PKM a little better if we considered the flow of these different terms:

The collection of data is necessary in order to prime the rest of the process. Once that data is analyzed, related and organized, we can consider the resulting product “information.”  Knowledge takes a body of information to a new level by synthesizing and relating information and one’s own experience and learning to create new or clarified meaning of value that can be disseminated to others. Wisdom results when both ethical and “higher good” thinking is applied to a person’s growing knowledge and experience base. Acquiring true wisdom is generally a process that evolves over time.


Considering this flow (also called by some the DIKW Pyramid), it seems to me that our opportunity as academic librarians is vast.  We have traditionally been involved in helping others find the information produced by others, and even in finding data.  NIH and NSF mandates for public access to data as well as the open access movement in recent years have also caused an explosion in the library fields of data management and overseeing newly created data repositories.  Librarians have seemed less active in the right hand side of the mix.  Granted, we do not have the in depth knowledge of our researchers’ fields of expertise, but we do have many skills to offer them in terms of easing their progress through the stages of DIKW.  Throughout this year, we hope to offer participants ideas and tools that librarians and researchers can implement in their own lives and also offer to their faculty and students to help achieve their goals more efficiently and with reduced stress in the process.

 Selected Readings:

Bedford, Denise A.D., “Enabling Personal Knowledge Management with Collaborative and Semantic Technologies”, ASIS&T Bulletin, Dec/Jan 2012.

Cheong, R. K. F. and Tsui, E. (2011), From Skills and Competencies to Outcome-based Collaborative Work: Tracking a Decade’s Development of Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) Models. Knowl. Process Mgmt., 18: 175–193.

Frand, J., & Hixon, C. (December 1999). Personal knowledge management: Who, what, why, where, when, and how [Working paper]. Retrieved November 9, 2011, from

Liew, Anthony (June 2007). “Understanding Data, Information, Knowledge And Their Inter-Relationships”. Journal of Knowledge Management Practice 8 (2).


For Further Exploration and Insights:

  1. Brainstorm for a few minutes regarding your work situation.  How do you interact with the various levels of the DIKW Pyramid? What opportunities might there be to offer further value to your faculty, coworkers and students? Are there new classes you could create? Other services you can offer?  What creative things are you already doing in this regard?
  2. Jason Frand and Carol Hixon’s paper in your selected readings is an often quoted source on PKM.  Frand & Hixon ask a series of questions which are still pertinent over 12 years later:

“If students and teachers continue to approach the educational experience using the same old approaches and techniques, will investing in information technologies make any difference? What, if anything, do faculty and students need to do differently in order to get value from our investment in information technologies “

How would you answer this question?

Calendar Image courtesy of ammer/

Year For Productivity: Introduction

New Class for the New Year

New Class for the New Year

Mary Axford and Crystal Renfro, two of the three authors of the Academic PKM blog (, are pleased to announce a new, FREE online course called “A Year to Improved Productivity for Librarians and Academic Researchers”. The course will consist of 26 lessons; one lesson will be posted every two weeks on our blog. Inspired by Helene Blowers’ 23 Things and created from an idea by Crystal Renfro, each lesson will consist of background on the topic, suggested readings, and exercises. Each lesson should not take more than an hour or two to complete.

What will be covered?

The lessons fall into one of three sections: (1) How to Improve Productivity, with lessons including What is PKM, Attention and Focus, Calendars, Productivity Apps, and Notebook software; (2) How to Create an Efficient Academic Workflow, with lessons including the Concept of Academic Workflow, Citation Software, Alerting Services, and Mindmaps; and (3) How to Develop a Learning Network, which includes lessons What is a Learning Network, Which Social Network Tool is for You, Effective Online Professional Image; and Tools Facilitating Further Training to name only a few of the topics planned.

What do I have to do?

The exercises will vary with the topic of the post. For posts that emphasize definitions of a topic, exercises might include writing a journal explaining your own ideas or current productivity regime. We find that the process of writing something down has a great effect in clarifying one’s thoughts. Mind maps have a similar ability to clarify and will be another option for exercises. Some exercises will encourage the reader to explore a particular productivity tool, or to write a list of goals.

While we will not collect and grade the exercises, we do want the experience to be an interactive one, and we encourage all participants to share your thoughts/exercises as comments on the blog posts. We expect to learn as much as you do.

Where do I sign up?

Interested individuals may sign up to get our blog by email or RSS feed at any time. As a bonus, there will be other posts on personal knowledge management topics (as well as the lessons) which we hope will enlighten and/or entertain.

The first lesson will be up on the blog Monday, January 7th, 2013, and new lessons will be posted biweekly thereafter. We hope the experience will be challenging, engaging, useful, interactive, and fun. All participation is welcome.

Link Roundup #3

western saddle with a lasso on it


Mobile Outlook 2013: $99 Tablets and ‘Digital Natives’ Take Charge – It is that time of year when we see year-end wrap-ups and predictions for the coming year. A $99 tablet that is light and could perform work tasks would be really nice.

Office for iPad Mentioned on Microsoft’s Support Website – also mentions Office for Android and iOs. This is likely to really increase tablet sales.

InvestInTech has a product Able2Extract PDF Converter 8 that can convert PDF files to MS Office formats including Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. The licensing cost seems pretty reasonable. Have not used this product and do not know how well it works, but could be very useful to academics.

Undergraduate Students and Technology is an infographic found through Stephen Abram’s blog, with info on the technologies students use, how they use it for study, what technologies they wish their professors would use more, etc.

Docear, the academic research management suite, has added automatic data extraction from PDFs. This is a big addition for their beta version. Docear is loosely descended from SciPlore. We hope to have a full review of it in 2013. For now, here is their description: “Docear is the complete solution for searching, organizing and creating academic literature such as assignments, theses, books and research papers. Just as an office suite bundles the applications essential to the professional environment, Docear integrates the essential applications of a researcher. These include an academic search engine, file manager, PDF reader*, mind mapping and note taking tool, reference manager, paper drafting, and word processor*. While the components are integrated, they are still replaceable so that if you don’t like Docear’s reference manager, you can simply use another one.”

New York Times Set to Launch Mini-books for Tablets. Interesting development, as this could allow them to sell extended analyses of news events that professors might use in courses.

How to Buy The Best Tablet. Good common sense advice from PC Magazine, with links to their Tablet Product Guide and article on 10 Best Tablets.

8 Ways Evernote Can Help You Get More From Your Research in 2013. The Evernote blog has some useful items, and it has “ambassadors” – blog contributors who blog about using Evernote in their profession and/or areas of interest. Alexandra Samuel, the author of this blog post, might be a good person to follow, as her ideas about managing research using Evernote in this blog post are worthwhile. As a bonus, at the bottom of this article are links to PDFs for using Evernote in different contexts, including 10 Ways to Use Evernote for a Productivity Boost.

Bitcasa and Its Unlimited Cloud Storage Come to Android, Windows 8/RT. Bitcasa is one of the newer cloud storage apps, offers 6 GB free, but the $10/month plan offers virtually unlimited storage. Useful for academics, because, ya know, we’re all broke!

christmas-kiss-decorated-tree And finally, we here at Academic PKM wish you a wonderful holiday season, whatever holiday, or none, that you celebrate. Among our favorite blogs are Profhacker and Gradhacker, and Gradhacker has had a couple of posts about gifts for graduate students. One is on technology gifts.

Time Management or Focus Management?

Horse with heart blinders Productivity tools, books and blogs proliferate today.  Time Management techniques, calendars and planners have never waned in popularity through the years.  The introduction of the smart phones and tablet PCs were widely touted as the ultimate way to remain plugged in and achieve the control of our work and home lives of which we always daydreamed.  So why does the average person still complain so often about feelings of being overwhelmed and there just not being enough time?  Is the culprit our understanding how to best utilize all the tools at our disposal?  Are we just inherently lazy?

David Allen, the father of the GTD (Getting Things Done) technique,  recently commented on the impact of smartphones on the GTD system.  Surprisingly, his opinion was that while mobile devices did make managing calendars and communication easier, the impact on the GTD process was minimal. In fact, he comments, “I think it’s as much adding to the distraction factor as it is to the leverage factor.”

So, is our problem one of time management or one of focus?  This is not a new concept.  In fact, Stanford University researchers Ophir, Nass and Wagner reported as early as 2009 that they considered “processing multiple incoming streams of information is considered a challenge for human cognition” (Cognitive control in media multitaskers; 2009).  Their tests showed that mega-multitaskers, rather than performing better, actually had a more difficult time focusing on individual tasks and were more vulnerable to environmental distractions.

Have we been striving for the wrong goal all these years as we learned to multitask and deal with increasing streams of information? Would our time have been better spent honing our ability to focus intently and think deeply and methodically about each project on our plate individually? Equine trainers recognized the value of decreasing outside distractions for their horses long ago and created blinders for their animals to wear. These trainers found that horses wearing blinders were much calmer and better able to channel all their energies forward to the tasks they were being asked to complete. Their overall performance improved significantly.  Do we need to think about developing our own form of “blinders” to everything but our most important projects?

A number of people have added a daily block of time for “being totally unplugged”.  They solely focus on a chosen task for that time block and do not allow interruptions for any reason. Knowledge management expert Thomas Davenport (“The Attention Economy”, 2002 and “Thinking for a Living”, 2005, to list only a few of his books) is currently a visiting professor at Harvard Business School while on leave from his post as Distinguished Professor of Information Technology and Management at Babson College. In his 2001 article, “The rise of knowledge towards attention management”, published in the Journal of Knowledge Management, Davenport addresses the importance of focus; he states:

” One of the key battlegrounds in the future knowledge war will be the management of attention: understanding how it is allocated by individuals and organizations, knowing how to capture it more effectively for important information and knowledge, using technology to get, keep, and protect it.”

All the skill we can develop at finding and organizing information is for naught if we are so involved in keeping all our balls in the air that we never manage to stop, focus, synthesize and effectively apply the information we have gathered. We are not managing knowledge or adding to collective wisdom until that process occurs. A sobering concept, but, as Davenport reminds us, one that is key to our continued success and development as knowledge workers.

Readers, what other techniques have you implemented to help you in dealing with focus or attention management?  I’d love to hear from you.

Link Roundup #2

western saddle with a lasso on it


Microsoft Office Coming to iPad and Android Devices Early Next Year. From TabTimes, an excellent website and newsletter for all tablet news.

50 Great Apps for Librarians – Website built around a presentation by Richard Le and Tom Duffy. Includes info about the two librarians, the presentation, handouts, a form to suggest apps, and more apps (i.e., apps suggested by other users. The presentation divides apps into Android and iOS, with categories for specific topics and for reference apps.

Delicious Bookmarks Get Redesign – Many people moved away from Delicious when there was a scare it would be going away, but it survives and has a team that seems working on improvements, including a soon-to-be-announced iPhone and iPad app.

20 iPad Apps for Productivity. While I don’t use an iPad, not all of these apps are iPad-specific. and if they are now may get ported in the future. Aimed primarily at business users, but many will also be of use to academics.

Livescribe Sky WiFi Smartpen Review. Smartpens may be of particular interest to students and to faculty who have to attend a lot of meetings. Livescribe has a large percentage of the U.S. market for digital pens, and generally users give the company good reviews. The new Sky pen adds wireless syncing of notes using Evernote. This review gives detailed information on the product’s pros and cons.

Windows 8 – Disappointing Usability for Both Novice and Power Users
. Recent article from Jakob Nielsen, THE usability guru. When he talks, people listen. On the other hand, Windows 8 is new and will likely be improved. Overall, it sounds like one of the most innovative products from Windows in years, and such innovation should be encouraged.

Which is part of what the C|Net critique of Nielsen’s usability studies says in “Why Jakob Nielsen’s Windows 8 Critique is Old-School Thinking“.