Humanizing Business Analysis: Visualizing Meaning through Business Concept Maps


Business Analysis is the first link in the chain. Unfortunately many times it is also the weakest link. Probably because we have never considered the most important issue: Business Analysis is a people-oriented process. Why then do we behave like engineers with our UML diagrams and so forth? Furthermore, many people believe that Business Analysis is just a matter of describing the business as it is – which is completely wrong: Good Business Analysis is full of insight and is forward looking. The process itself can be meaningful, eye opening and creative. It is a learning process! Psychology and cognition are more important than logical completeness.

1. Business Analysis Renovation?

We are a number of experienced business analysts who think Business Analysis can be done better.

Let me quote Ron Ross and Gladys Lam from their latest book (Ross & Lam 2011):

"Continuous change is a central fact of life for business these days. The techniques you use for business analysis must be based on the assumption that business rules will change, often quite rapidly. The best business solution is one that caters to such change, always doing so in the manner friendliest to business people and Business Analysts.”

”Use no term in talking with business people about the business they wouldn’t use naturally”.

On ”What’s Really Needed to Align Business and IT”: ”So many IT projects end in failure and are simply written off. Same old story, time and time again. Why is it so hard?” ”The answer is simply that business leads are not being properly engaged at the onset in sketching out key elements of a winning business solution. They’re not asking the right questions in the right way of the right people at the right time”.

I could not agree more. The trouble seems to be related to the way we have traditionally performed business analysis.

2. Learning Psychology to the Rescue

Change is obviously an end-goal of business development. I say:

"You cannot change what you do not understand!"

Hence “understanding” is a very important requirement for business analysis.

Bret Victor (former Apple user interface designer) said in his CUSEC 2012 keynote (”Inventing on Principle”):

”So much of creation is about discovery - and you can’t discover anything, if you can’t see what you are doing”.

This means that visualization and the capability of drawing many sketches, drafts, proposals and so forth are of essence, which makes visualization a key requirement of business analysis.

In all business development initiatives, there is a great need for a common “model” to describe the business concepts in a particular context.

What is in common for all three requirements is, what is today called “sense making”. It deals with what lies between perception and cognition. (Making sense out of what we sense – turning sensory input into meaning).

Educational psychologists have been working in this area since the 1970’s.

2.1. Concept Mapping

Concept Mapping is one of the results, which came out of the learning psychology research, and it has been proven to be a tool equally well used by both business experts and business analysts.

Concept model maps were originally designed (in the 1970’s) and developed by Prof. Joseph Novak with a learning focus. The theory behind concept maps is based on D. Ausubel’s work on meaningful learning (Moon et al 2011). There are two processes: Discovery (of information) that leads to reception of the information - integrated with what the learner already knows. In this manner concept mapping is not only facilitating learning, but also creativity.  It deals with People, Language and Meaning, not Engineering. Learning from the business what the business is doing and where it wants to go is a people issue. It involves brainstorming workshops, mapping the language of the business and getting the meanings right. The "as-is" situation is not well defined (and fragmented, and redundant, and...) and it may need some rework on the fly. Finding out where the business wants to go is also learning. Learning and sensemaking are closely related.

Concept maps communicate extremely well and are fast and easy to produce, and they promote intuitive visual thinking and have proven to be highly successful in business analysis. Conceptual modeling (UML, Entity-Relationship diagrams etc.) failed as a business-side tool, but concept mapping - coming from educational psychology - is readily accepted by business workers.

Contrary to common wisdom business analysis is not "just a documentation issue". It is a learning process - both for the analyst, but also for the business itself. Concept mapping works in this context because it is based on psychology (the theory of meaningful learning), not on an engineering mindset. Which implies that business concept mapping is a business task, as it rightfully should be.

Let us look at a very simple example, The EU-Rent Car Rental[1] .

The EU-Rent Car Rental fictitious business is described by in the OMG standards documentation as follows:

“EU-Rent rents cars to its customers. Customers may be individuals or companies. Different models of car are offered, organized into groups. All cars in a group are charged at the same rate. A car may be rented by a booking made in advance or by a ‘walk-in’ customer on the day of rental. A rental booking specifies the car group required, the start and end dates/times of the rental and the EU-Rent branch from which the rental is to start. Optionally, the reservation may specify a one-way rental (in which the car is returned to a branch different from the pick-up branch) and may request a specific car model within the required group.

EU-Rent has a loyalty club. Customers who join accumulate points that they can use to pay for rentals. EU-Rent from time to time offers discounts and free upgrades, subject to conditions.

EU-Rent records ‘bad experiences’ with customers (such as unauthorized late return from rental, or damage to car during rental) and may refuse subsequent rental reservations from such customers.”

The text above is pretty clear and well written. However, experience has shown that concepts maps are indeed much more intuitive to read and understand. The diagram below represents almost all of the information in the text above:

Concept Maps: Overview of the EU-Rent Car Rental Business
Overview of the EU-Rent Car Rental Business

The diagram is a “concept map”[2] , and it really speaks for itself, which is the whole idea. Notice that you can read little sentences like “Customer issues Booking” and “Car Group has a Rate” and so forth. The sentences are visual - they are the connecting lines between the concepts. What you achieve is “Eloquence through simplicity” (many thanks to Stephen Few for introducing this phrase in another context).

Concept maps can be drawn easily in brainstorming style workshops and they are easy to maintain, also for non-technical users. We are using a very simple and realistic approach, incl. a tested and reliable, publicly available brainstorming tool (CmapTools from IHMC,

2.2. Design Thinking

Design Thinking: In business analysis there is often a need for some "renovation" besides, of course, development of new concepts and processes. We have found inspiration in Design Thinking (see eg. Roger Martin's book, "The Design of Business", Harvard Business School Press, 2009). Design Thinking is a mindset, which, as the name suggests, promotes the creation of ideas. So does Concept Mapping, so the two of them work really well together - true synergy.

Tim Brown, CEO and President of IDEO (a leading design firm) writes in Harvard Business Review: “... as economies in the developed world shift from industrial manufacturing to knowledge work and service delivery, innovation’s terrain is expanding” (Brown 2008).

Over the last few years more and more business people have accepted the idea of “Design Thinking” as an approach to business development. Not only products, but also services, the organization, the business models, the narratives and all the rest of business management should be designed, not engineered.

It is important to understand the differences between “reliability” and “validity”, see Roger Martin (Martin 2009).

Reliability is the traditional business management approach. Managers are rewarded for providing measurable results (shareholder value and so on). Investors and shareholders and bonus programs use analytical approaches to determine the reliability of the business. This is the world of charts of accounts, budgets, forecasts, IT systems, corporate performance management, business intelligence and - not least - quarterly results.

On the other side of the house, designers are rewarded for validity. Their task is to produce “things” that really are valid (on the market, in the organization, among the customers, employees etc.). It is the validity angle, which is in focus in design thinking. Validity and innovation go together. Validity is meant in the business sense. If a change or a new thing provides business value (in new ways) it is valid, otherwise it is not. Validity comes by design. Reliability comes from “engineering” - robust systems, procedures, repeatability and so forth.

Design Thinking is about a flow of the creative processes and about support of the generation of ideas. Concept maps are to a business analyst what snapshots, sketches and cardboard models are to a building architect. The ideas come as part of the exploration, the brainstorms and the communicative effects of concept maps. The sum is greater than the parts – by visualizing meaning you collect the collective wisdom of the business specialists and the data people.

Using design thinking to enable business development requires understanding where you are today and where you want to go. Concept mapping is the perfect match for this. Design Thinking is a mindset that - obviously - supports creativity. So does Concept Mapping, which means that the two techniques work together in real synergy.

3. Information-driven Business Analysis

Business starts with ideas. From (some of) the idea(s) a business model is created. The business model is then implemented across and among all the necessary places, things and actors such as people, products, capital, fixed assets, customer segments and so forth. As soon as you are open for business, you start monitoring and you analyze what is going on. Right from the beginning of the business model, you are betting the business on a certain, specified, set of concepts and relationships between them. What the business really means is an extremely important issue. Uncertainty - and misunderstandings - on this level can lead to grave problems. The business has a responsibility to be very clear about what it means when it talks about the essential concepts, which are of importance to the business model - and the implementation of it in the daily life of everybody supporting the business.

The diagram below is my showcase demonstration of the famous (and not quite correct, sic!) business model of the Gillette company overlaid on top of the famous Business Model Canvas (from Osterwalder et al, Business Model Generation 2010):

Concept Map: Business Model Canvas

The aim of any business development effort is to “tune” the business even better in order to obtain ever more reliable results. There are two very fundamental requirements, which underline the need for the comparisons between complex concept structures:

(1) The business analyst must establish a valid understanding of the business (concepts, and also processes) of the business as it is and as it might be in the future.

(2) The business analyst must be intuitive, insightful and creative during the process as the team learns from the understanding of the business concepts and prototype new ideas in rapid succession.

Most people acknowledge that the key concepts of the business are important. However, they assume that they are all readily available as well-defined stuff, which everybody agrees on. Not so. Picture the enterprise as a very large building with many floors, endless corridors and lots of doors and windows.

 An “Introvert” Office Building in Copenhagen, Denmark (photograph by the author)
            An “Introvert” Office Building in Copenhagen, Denmark (photograph by the author)

You may have some ideas about what is behind most of those windows and doors. But you cannot know in detail. And you are bound to be wrong on some points. If you do not need to open the doors, you do not have a problem. Or?

Sooner or later you will have to “open a door” and see what is behind it. Why? Because you must - or would like to - change something. Change - hopefully to the better - is a very important driver. As you open the doors, one at time, you have to be able to put your findings into the context of what you already know.  This is very similar to the situation a designer is in.

Think about a building renovation architect, for example. Design thinking for business development learns from the understanding of the business and creates (just like e.g. product designers do) a new or changed set of business concepts, which are valid from the business point of view. Validity and innovation go hand in hand.

From a business perspective what is stable is concepts and relationships. They survive most things, including change of ERP-systems, for example.

The following concept map summarizes the main proposals of this article:

Concept maps: The following concept map summarizes the main proposals of this article

Running a business from day to day clearly needs reliability of processes and results. But that does not imply that business analysis should (initially) focus on reliability issues. You cannot deliver reliable results, if your understanding of the business concepts is not valid. Validity is the starting point, and that is what design thinking leads to. In most business organizations today there are very optimistic assumptions about the level of understanding of the business concepts among the employees and managers. Incomplete knowledge is a risk to the reliability of the business operations. Concept mapping provides the necessary level of understanding and makes it easy to communicate what “this is all about”.

4. Results of Visualizing Meaning

Business people operate in very dynamic situations and need very flexible approaches.

One of the leading thinkers within information modeling, Malcolm D. Chisholm has stated:

“Conceptual models must capture all business concepts and all relevant relationships. If instances of things are also part of the business reality, they must be captured too. Unfortunately, there is no standard methodology and notation to do this. Conceptual models that communicate business reality effectively require some degree of artistic imagination. They are products of analysis, not of design.” (Chisholm 2012).

Concept mapping is my preferred tool, because synthesis, which is the solution creating activity, is much about writing narratives. Concept maps are great storytellers! They are designed for it – because they enable visual thinking.

The process of developing concept maps in brainstorming sessions is highly supportive of creating understanding of different angles and perspectives. The Ah-Has are bound to appear sooner than later as a result of rich comparisons of visualized meaning (concepts and relationships).

This process of discovery and the subsequent understanding is one of the skills designers have. You describe and understand - and get ideas on the fly! Then you improve and apply.

Drawing concept maps is a learning exercise. So is reading and discussing them. Changing them together in brainstorm sessions creates a very creative environment. And add to this a lot of new business understanding as well as new opportunities.

Based on experiences from many projects since 2005 (and ongoing), there is strong confirmation of the applicability of concept mapping for business analysis. My associates and I have been engaged in many projects, many of which have been data warehouse / business intelligence oriented business development projects. A handful of projects were large specification projects in the public sector.

Client feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. The business users quickly recognize the added value of concept maps. The viability of “meaningful learning” (which is the theoretical background of concept mapping) is solidly confirmed.

The approach to be described here is a pragmatic combination of design thinking and concept mapping. Concept mapping is based on “The Theory of Meaningful Learning”. Design thinking is a mindset that supports creativity. The marriage of the two accelerates business development:

• It supports the fact that business people operate in dynamic situations

• Business analysis becomes “business synthesis”

• Business people take ownership

• Scope and validity is maximized

• Project estimates are much more precise

• Concept maps are the perfect (business-side) forerunners for fact modeling and business rules, semantic solutions, master data management and much more.

Your concept maps are to the business information asset what the chart of accounts is to the financial assets. (“Frisendal’s Law”)

It is astounding that we have not discovered many years ago that a lot of the analysis efforts are Learning processes (with a big L). Think about that – it is probably the key issue, which you have learned from staying with me so far. Thank you – and happy concept mapping!


  • The EU-Rent case study was developed by Model Systems, Ltd., along with several other organizations of the Business Rules Group (, and has been used by many organizations. The body of descriptions and examples may be freely used, providing its source is clearly acknowledged.
  • CmapTools is a trademark of the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition on behalf of the University of West Florida Board of Pensacola, FL 32501, USA.

Author: Thomas Frisendal

Thomas Frisendal is an experienced business information analysis consultant with more than 35 years on the IT vendor side and as an independent consultant. He excels in the art of turning data into information and knowledge. It does not happen by itself. Since 2005 he has specialized in business analysis and concept mapping as well as design of business intelligence solutions. His approach, ”Information-driven Business Analysis” is the ”New Nordic” approach to business analysis. He has excellent professional experiences from 25+ projects. 1999-2011 he was external lecturer at the University of Nice. In October 2012 he published his first book, "Design Thinking Business Analysis" on Springer. Thomas Frisendal is a member of the IIBA, TDWI Denmark (board member), Danish IT, The Danish Management Board, IAIDQ (charter member) and The Cognitive Science Society.


  • Brown T (2008) Design Thinking. In Harvard Business Review (, June 2008.
  • Frisendal T (2012): Design Thinking Business Analysis: Business Concept Mapping Applied. Springer.
  • Martin R (2009) The Design of Business - Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage, Harvard Business Press (Kindle edition).
  • Moon BM, Hoffman RR, Novak JD, Canãs AJ (2011), Applied Concept Mapping – Capturing, Analyzing and Organizing Knowledge. CRC Press, Boca Raton
  • Osterwalder A, Pigneur Y (2010) Business Model Generation. Wiley, Hoboken
  • Ross R, Lam G: (2011) Building Business Solutions – Business Analysis with Business Rules, Business Rules Solutions LLC


[1] Based on the accompanying example to the OMG SBVR standard ( SBVR stands for "Semantics of Business Vocabulary and Business Rules". ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: The EU-Rent case study was developed by Model Systems, Ltd., along with several other organizations, and has been used by many organizations.

[2] The technique of concept mapping was developed by Joseph D. Novak and his research team at Cornell University in the 1970s. See chapter 6 for further details.

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ron segal posted on Tuesday, May 14, 2013 10:06 PM
Thomas,fantastic, thanks. You're preaching to the long time converted, which is absolutely ok. We used to call this conceptual data modelling, but that gives entirely the wrong impression, particularly these days, when what we were really doing (hopefully still are) is exactly what you describe as 'concept mapping', developing abstracted maps of the things of interest, their definitions and their relationships.

Actually I remember that car rental example from working with the guys at Model Systems in the UK, a long time ago! However a structured approach to analysis seems to be a dying art which actually I have to say isn't helped much by the IIBA, with a BABOK that seems to focus more on how BAs should behave inside projects than on mainstream techniques (and ways of thinking) such as this and particularly your point about synthesis over analysis (sorry about the rant). Your rendition of the business model canvas (another personal favorite) is a brilliant example that effectively treats the BMC as a high level conceptual map that is then fleshed out to a further level of detail.

And what a beautiful meta model of your proposal. Every 'framework' should have one!

Robin Goldsmith posted on Wednesday, May 15, 2013 4:34 PM
Thomas, thank you for introducing (at least) me to the concept mapping technique. It certainly seems as though it would be helpful in analyzing ‘as is’ processes and designing ‘should be’ processes. I have three comments and a question.

1. I fully agree that much business analysis tends to fail from the start because it usually focuses on what to build without first sufficiently understanding the business and its needs. That is a main reason why business analysis is “not asking the right questions in the right way of the right people at the right time.” I don’t think concept maps necessarily change the situation because I don’t think a diagramming technique will cause business analysis to ask about the right things in the right ways. Put another way, one certainly can draw wonderful concept maps of whatever the business analysis does ask about, regardless of how right it is.

2. I also agree that business analysis fails because it skips identifying a business solution and tries to go directly to designing an implementable product, system, or software which then often turns out not to be what is needed. Again, I doubt that a diagramming technique would necessarily change this, since the concept map seems just as useful for designing said product without first defining the business solution the product is meant to achieve.

3. Concept map depictions may well help create understandings that exceed whatever understanding current business analysis has, but what a concept map shows still is not sufficient to provide the types of understanding that are needed for effective business analysis. The concept map picture needs to be supplemented with true analysis, which involves interpretation and evaluation to understand why things happen the way they do and produce what they produce—both good and bad.

Addressing these three issues requires a change from conventional business analysis thinking. I describe such changed thinking and suggest ways to accomplish it in my book, Discovering REAL Business Requirements for Software Project Success. Concept maps would be a valuable addition to the techniques the book suggests for aiding understanding.

I did not understand what your section on ‘design thinking’ was trying to say. You talked about its importance but never seemed actually to explain what design thinking is, how it is different from whatever else you think people do instead, and how concept maps relate to design thinking. Could you please explain further.
Jannie posted on Thursday, May 16, 2013 8:30 AM
Thomas I so agree with you! I have always said that before you can propose solutions to a problem you must gain insight. Without insight you can't do anything, you can't add any value. So many projects suffer because they do not allow for this. All you see in the plan is that the BA must gather requirements and produce the BRS as quickly as possible. No learing, no insight, no innovation.
Thomas Frisendal posted on Thursday, May 16, 2013 1:33 PM
Thanks guys for the good comments!
@Robin: Yes, I was a bit brief about Design Thinking, which is a rather large subject. Basically it is a process, which goes through exploration, ideation and implementation.
A good starting point is at IDEO's homepage. Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO started much of this (non-product design) in 2008 with his HBR article. Explore IDEO's page about this, here:
Thomas Frisendal
ron segal posted on Friday, May 17, 2013 1:06 AM
Thomas, couldn't resist another comment, as your last point about the failure to understand that business analysis is a learning process is so true. The common notion of business analysis as facilitating the 'capture' of requirements and similar, positions the process to achieve a small fraction of its potential value. A problem is of course is that 'learning' can imply that you don't know your own business, which of course from in-depth concepts analysis perspective most people probably don't, which is where much of the added value lies, but which can be politically difficult to sell! It also tends to shift business analysis towards being a much more senior role. Are these perhaps a good part of the reason for the failure of business analysis to be understood to be a learning process?
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