How Mapping Can Support the IS

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Development Process

One of the most difficult aspects in IS development is that of enabling a sensible

conversation between IS developers and users, in the manner described above. Managers

use a different language from IS developers — one that is driven by the changing

needs of the business from day-to-day. With the exception of techno-enthusiasts,

managers are unimpressed by the inflexibility of information systems and the requirement

to learn new system interfaces beyond those of Microsoft (this was true in the above case

where academics who would only infrequently use the system struggled to remember

how to access options). Moreover, in addition to managing the different views of

managers (who were taking a “sponsor”-like role), a system has to take into account the

fact that the users are not universal in their requirements. In the above case, operations

staff wanted different capabilities from Marketing, with those staff overseas facing

different problems to those based locally. Similarly IS developers use their own particular

jargon in a “taken-for-granted” way. Few IS developers have direct business or managerial

experience. Consequently causal mapping encourages IS staff to understand the

business reasons for their developments, and to justify changes with respect to the

mapped goals.

There is little to be achieved by arguing that one group or the other should be different.

As with the differences between marketing people and operations people, these differences

reflect important specialist expertise particularly so in the case of IS developers,

where their expertise can often be more opaque than for other experts in the organization.

Organizations function well when multiple perspectives can be fruitfully harnessed. As

we have argued above, facilitating mutual understanding and mutual respect depends

upon establishing and negotiating linkages between user roles and development

possibilities. The assertion that users do know, or should know, their requirements, is

not helpful. Users know something about their role in the organization but can only

express requirements when they have an understanding of what can be done, and

developers can only express what can be done when they have a better understanding

of users requirements (each category having a different set of understandings).

By its very nature, causal mapping is about linkages. Linking statements made by both

users and developers in a manner that gradually builds a visual artefact (a map) aids

different stakeholders in moving from divergent positions to one of convergence and

encourages joint ownership. The meaning of any statement is enhanced through its

linkages rather than simply relying on the words in the statement. For example, in Figure

4 the statement regarding “unable to get decent statistical information” is given further

meaning through the statements explaining it and the six purposes (consequences)

realised if it were delivered as “having decent information.” Those supporting it are:

“rigid structure of the systems rather than flexible structure” and “[NOT]8 have realtime

access to student progress.” This means that a statement made by a user that is linked

through an explanation or consequence to a statement made by a developer elaborates

the meaning of both statements to both parties. This is a form of psychological

negotiation. Within cognitive psychology this is known as the elaboration of a Personal

Constructs System (Kelly, 1955). The map, as an artefact and a “visual interactive model,”

is thus a device to aid psychological as well as social negotiation.

The map also serves two other mundane but important outcomes. Whether it is recorded

through the use of Oval Mapping on the wall, or through the use of computer-aided

representation, it is both a continually developing and changing set of minutes (or

organisational memory) of the meeting, and a formally constructed model of means to

ends (record of the consequences of purposeful action).

The formalities of this type of causal mapping require statements to be made in an

actionable format, encouraging statements to be made by both users and developers that

naturally encourage each to think about “so what?” (consequences) and “how?”

(explanations). The hierarchical structure of mapping (with the goals at the top, key

issues supporting them, with options and assertions at the bottom) that follows from

arrows representing “means to ends,” naturally forces thinking about ultimate desired

outcomes (goals). The likelihood of multiple consequences and multiple explanations

naturally represents goals as being interconnected where each goal supports others and,

in turn, is supported by others. Information systems are there to help sensible choices

to be made by managers. Therefore information, its timeliness, its setting within the

context of other information, and its accessibility are determined by the extent to which

it can support goals or help avert negative goals. Inevitably some design requirements

for information provision are more potent than others. Because the map shows causal

linkages, it becomes easier to make judgments about the relative potency of particular

aspects of information system design. Thus, some propositions within the map may have

consequences for many goals and also provide for many causal chains to the same goal

(and so robustness) and so be more potent. Typically the degree of potency provides

important clues for prioritising requirements.

The structure of a map, as nodes (actionable statements) and arrows (causality) invites

categorization. Thus, each node can be attributed a particular “style” (usually a particular

font and/or colour) indicating, for example, different types of requirements, different

resource demands, different a delivery time lines, and different priorities. The

categorisation may occur during a workshop, or as the model is used as a part of project

management (see Eden & Ackermann, 1998). As categorization emerges the software

permits analysis of the categories, for example, which statements occur in specified

categories but not in others. This means it is possible to determine which proposals are,

for example, both inexpensive and high priorities.


Although there are other problem-structuring approaches that help to develop effective

IS requirements — most notably Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) — causal mapping

and associated software offers a degree of formal modelling that links easily to more

traditional IS development methods. It is also, in practice, a transparent method.

In particular, and as with Soft Systems Methodology, the process of mapping within the

context of a workshop enables several stakeholders to see their views within the context

of others, develop a richer understanding of possibilities, and avoid miscommunication

and possible dysfunctional conflict. Using mapping as a device to help negotiation is

also likely to build a more collaborative approach to information systems design. Those

developing Information Systems therefore will benefit from using mapping, not only

through the added benefit of having a shared agreement for the resultant system but also

through being able to involve a wide range of stakeholders.

Mapping provides a natural format for ensuring linkage and integration between IS

potential and the business needs of the organisation. Through building up a shared

understanding, more effective use of the information systems is likely.

Moreover, as noted by Nelson, Nadkarni, Narayanan and Ghods (2000), mapping can

reveal patterns of behaviour, theories in use, which help researchers understand the

process of mapping and how it can contribute towards better outcomes. This may help

researchers in developing methods for information system design and analysis, that more

effectively assist the organization.

Alongside causal mapping, the specially designed Group Support System (Group

Explorer) software provides the potential for high productivity meetings as well as an

online capture that becomes a natural organisational memory and project-planning tool.


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1 Decision Explorer is software designed specifically for causal mapping and is

available through

2 Group Explorer is designed to facilitate the fast and anonymous construction of

causal maps for participant groups of 5-15 persons or groups and is available


3 It is not untypical to have maps comprising 1000 nodes and 1500 relationships.

4 This case has been amended for confidentiality reasons and the report considers

the very early stages in the process.

5 See Bryson et al. (2004) Visible Thinking: Unlocking causal mapping for practical

business results, Wiley, Chichester for more details on the mapping process and

additional cases.

6 For more detail about different modes of working see Ackermann, F. and Eden, C.

(2001) ‘Contrasting Single User and Networked Group Decision Support Systems,”

Group Decision and Negotiation, Vol 10, 1, pp. 47-66.

7 The software, Decision Explorer, acts as a relational database allowing users to

select which parts of the model they wish to examine, view whether there are

linkages to other potentially relevant material, categorise statements according to

their status, e.g., key issue, and carry out analysis on the structure.

8 The [NOT] represents the fact that there is a negative link namely “having real time

access” leads negatively to “unable to get decent statistical data.”

9 Based upon the Ackoff and Emery typology (Ackoff, R. L. and Emery, F., On

Purposeful Systems. London: Tavistock; 1972).