Concept mapping

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The process of organizing and representing knowledge using concept maps.

Purpose and benefit

The purpose of concept mapping is to acquire, organize and visually present knowledge acquired from experts or teams. Concept mapping can also be used to map domain knowledge generally without the need to elicit this from experts. The main benefit of concept mapping is that it provides a user-friendly overview of concept knowledge and also allows “drill-drown” to detailed knowledge in a structured way. By using concept mapping software it is possible to link various types of artefact (documents/videos/audio etc.) and provide search capability to allow users to find things easily.


The description in this section applies to the concept mapping process to be used to capture and map knowledge from technical experts.

  1. Pre-requisites
    1. Confirm the expert has concept knowledge (critical knowledge) of interest. A knowledge-loss risk assessment should have been carried out for the department or team under review.
    2. Carry out a preliminary interview to determine the knowledge domains the expert is competent in. Use this to also explain the knowledge capture process that will be followed.
    3. Carry out semi-structured interviews (see wiki for elicitation interviews)
    4. Obtain and install a concept map modeling package, e.g. CMAP tools (which is free to download from the IHMC web site ). Microsoft Visio could also be used if a proprietary software package cannot be installed. Other tools are also available. Computer software programs allow moving of concepts together with linking statements and the moving of groups of concepts and links to restructure the map.
  2. The concept mapping process
    1. Each concept map is set in a context, and the mapping process should include or even begin by defining this context. A good way to define the context is to construct a focus question, that is, a question that clearly specifies the problem or issue the concept map should help to resolve. A well-formed focus question increases the quality of concept mapping process and the resulting concept map.
    2. Given a selected domain and a defined question or problem in this domain, the next step is to identify the key concepts that apply to this domain. Usually 15 to 25 concepts will suffice. These concepts could be listed, and then from this list a rank ordered list should be established. The most general, most inclusive concept, for this particular problem or situation should be put at the top of the list, and the most specific, least general concept at the bottom of the list. Use the interview transcript to identify concepts for modelling. For example if the expert is knowledgeable in the field of “radiation monitoring equipment”, use this as a high level node in the model. Derive relationships from this node to sub-sets (e.g. gamma monitors, beta monitors, etc.). Repeat this for other technical areas in the transcript.
    3. The next step is to construct a preliminary concept map. Consider adding to the concept map other areas of knowledge (expert’s contacts, examples of work, career history etc.)
    4. Continue modelling in this way until no further useful information is available from the transcript.
  3. Invite the expert to review the concept map and update. By working directly with the expert it should be possible to drill-down and add further concepts and knowledge. Other concepts can be added. Good maps usually result from three to many revisions. This is one reason why using computer software is helpful.
    1. Once the preliminary map is built, cross-links should be sought. These are links between concepts in different domains of knowledge on the map that help to illustrate how these domains are related to one another.
    2. Group work may be necessary as one begins to struggle with the process of building a good hierarchical organization. Wherever possible, validate the knowledge captured with other experts or peers.
  4. Follow-up
    1. Consider adding the concept map produced in this way to the organization’s intranet or portal in a dedicated knowledge management section. Systems similar to Microsoft Sharepoint, for example, provide excellent repositories for concept maps.
    2. Link the concept map to other artefacts produced by the expert to allow easy access to this information.
    3. Retain any recordings and transcripts for knowledge preservation. Usually a portal, wiki or equivalent is used for long term storage and search/retrieve activities.


The use of “mind-maps” provide similar results to concept maps. Mind-mapping software is also free to download from certain web site (e.g. FreeMind, XMind). Although the process works best with an available interview transcript, it is also possible to work with an expert to derive concept models without the need for an interview.

Implementation guidance

  1. Note - The guidance described here applies to simplified knowledge capture and modelling processes. Much more stringent and structured approaches are needed for artificial intelligence applications.
  2. There are no specific rules on how concept maps should be constructed. However, it is worthwhile noting:
    • Wherever possible concepts and relationships should follow a standard naming convention.
    • A hierarchical view tends to be more effective than a centralised page-view.
    • The process can take many people weeks to complete for a single expert.
    • Link’s to examples of an expert’s work are desirable. Consider linking to other knowledge artefacts (CVs, job descriptions, contact lists, technical papers etc) to provide a holistic view of the expert’s capability.
    • It is always useful to record sessions with experts to help with subsequent codification. Recording also means that experts will take the interview sessions seriously and provide their best attention.
    • Good facilitation is essential to ensure time with the expert is not wasted.
    • At the end the map should be revised, concepts re-positioned in ways that lead to clarity and better over-all structure. When computer software is used, one can go back, change the size and font style add colors etc to highlight the map where necessary.

Success factors

  • The availability of a suitable modelling software package is essential.
  • Having an interview transcript to work from is highly desirable.
  • Modelled knowledge should be validated by other experts and peers if possible.
  • Ensure that the concept maps are available (read-only) for others to view. A portal or intranet is usually needed for this.
  • Experience in the use of concept mapping software is essential – although most packages are very easy to use.

Common pitfalls

  • Trying to model too much expert knowledge down to data level. If the data is readily understood and available, references are adequate.
  • Modelling readily known and understood information.
  • Providing only a superficial view of an expert’s knowledge. Experts have many years of useful knowledge; it is not possible to capture this on a single page of a concept map!
  • Creating a concept map without sufficient review. In this case the map stays incomplete and difficult to understand.
  • Not sharing or transferring the knowledge. If an expert’s knowledge is modelled and never used then the whole process has little value.

Related articles

Concept map

Concept sorting


Semantic net