Mind Mapping: Charting Learning in Financial Management

Breaking down corporate learning to a science is interesting in theory, but does it work in practice? According to Alan Levy, the answer is a resounding yes.

Levy is vice president of systems administration at a Rosemont, Ill.-based financial management company, running its IT and infrastructure group. He views himself as a technician, and his communication style can reflect that.

“One of the most important things for a leader or business owner is to communicate what they know,” Levy said. “I need to communicate to upper management at a higher level consistently. I was communicating at a tactical level, not a strategic level.”

Having obtained a bachelor’s degree in engineering, Levy proceeded to get his MBA, which didn’t sufficiently enhance his communication skills, he said.

“From an engineering background, I can talk technical jargon until I’m blue in the face but going to talk to the CFO, that doesn’t do me any good,” Levy said. “The MBA helped me with the business speak, but it didn’t help me with being able to talk on the fly. I understand how to talk in accounting terms, but that’s technical speak, as well.”

So this fall, Levy contacted Donalee Markus, Ph.D., who provided him with a range of her brain-training exercises. Levy said he was skeptical at first.

“Some of the exercises are connecting dots, which is strange, I thought — ‘What can connecting dots teach me about talking to the CFO?’” he said.

But as he proceeded with the program, Levy realized how it was affecting his thought patterns.

“I actually organize presentations and communications differently than I did before,” he said. “I start talking to my group, going down a path where I draw out or talk about a situation that we’re trying to accomplish, and I can figure out if my presentation is working.”

Levy said he might realize, “Oh, they take in information better if I do it with a mind map.” Then he can switch gears and present the problem as an arrangement of words in a picture that has a key concept at the center or top and related words and concepts linked with the key concept via lines and arrows.

For example, as Levy’s staff switched to a Windows 2003 desktop server exchange, it upgraded all its Windows products.

“I’ve got five people working on this project, and everyone’s got their own piece to work on,” he said. “Using a mind map, I’ve been able to outline all the pieces involved, all the steps in sequential order, and who is responsible for taking care of what and when. By looking at the board and mind maps, one can easily figure out what we’re doing, how to do it, when it’s being done, who’s responsible and where we are in the process.”

Levy also said this method of organization has key benefits in terms of staff unity and morale.

“Even though they sit next to each other, working on the same project, they sometimes feel that they don’t understand the project as a whole,” he said. “This gives them the sense of being part of the whole project as opposed to doing just their part. So it’s helped with motivation and with just the overall demeanor of the group.”

Levy said understanding how his co-workers learn has helped him develop programs that are more beneficial across the board.

“The bottom liners, for example, they want to know what the end result is,” Levy said, adding he’s become aware that C-level officers in his company often fall in line with this school of thought.

This led to a change in his method of communicating with executives when explaining a problem. Simply put, he learned to get to the point.

“Normally, what I would do is explain the problem, say step by step how we solved it and then reach the end result,” he said.

When being this meticulous in briefing a C-level officer, though, Levy was met with frustration.

“So now I organize it by saying ‘OK, this is what we’re doing, and this is how we’re doing it,’ and usually I don’t get to the ‘how’ anymore because once they find out what we’re doing, that’s all they care about,” he said.

In keeping with this model, Levy identified the bottom-line end result of this change.

“Now I’m no longer perceived as a person who rambles on and on,” he said. “I’m perceived as a person who deals with problems.”

– Daniel Margolis, dmargolis@clomedia.com