The Mysterious Mind Map

Organize your thoughts on your PC.
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And now for something completely different.

Big changes for small businesses in automation and customer relationship management tools are creating some unrecognizable management tools. Chief among them is the raft of mind-mapping software.

Ever doodle out a set of options or a quick business hierarchy chart? That's a basic mind map. Done right, mind maps are terrific business planning and organizational tools.

The name says it all: You create a map -- of words, of ideas, of things that need to get done -- all arranged graphically on a page.

These reified concepts are then connected by any one of several visual clues, including lines and small graphics, to organize them so succinctly that you can grasp the full issue at a glance.

Mind-maps date back to the dark ages. In today's world, they've been automated and placed out on the Web to allow rich collaboration and targeted features.

Mapping Ware

There are literally dozens of mind-mapping software options -- most of them cheap and some of them downright free.

I like what

WiseMapping is doing with its free online mind maps.

Cayra.net is also a very useful tool if you're looking for free downloadable software.

XMind, $99, offers some powerful features. And if you are looking to take ideas about your business into the third dimension, check out the $49

Topicscape, which turns business processes into three-dimensional models like something you would see in the video game Doom. It's weird but cool.

The MySpace of Maps

I have been testing a free mind-mapping tool,

Bubbl.us, for the past few months. I must say, these tools really do work -- especially if you're looking for that quick strategic planning reference you can update and refer to daily to keep you and your business on track.

Bubbl.us basically marries MySpace to a simple yet powerful set of mind-mapping tools. Simply go to the Web site, open an account, and you'll find a white page with a single greenish cell plunked in the middle saying "Start here." And that's what you do.

Name the cell something you want to study in your business -- say, customers. And then create a new cell by clicking on the little graphics in the current cell. In about 20 minutes you will have laid out a nice map of your customer base.

I keep all the different parts of my affairs arranged by platform: print, TV and radio work. I can change the names of clients as they piss me off, and I get rid of them. And I can strategically factor in other issues, such as how likely they are to pay me.

Bubbl.us is not for everyone. If you have truly complex problems, I would move to a desktop solution such as Cayra or XMind.

Collaboration can be clumsy. On a recent consulting job, I invited one of my partners into a Bubbl.us map, and we had a terrible time getting it effectively updated. We found the less-elegant Mindmeister tools much better equipped to handle the task.

But see what just happened? You created a fungible visual representation of your business that can be updated in real time. And you have spent absolutely nothing except the time to make it. Not too shabby.

Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.