ISACA Journal
Volume 5, 2,016 


IS Audit Basics: The Soft Skills Challenge, Part 4: Mind Mapping 

Ed Gelbstein, Ph.D., and Stefano Baldi 

Many years ago during a rainy November evening in London, England, I decided to browse a bookshop to keep dry and warm and also see what had been released recently.

In the psychology section, there was a fairly thin book bearing a shiny cover and containing loads of drawings. It was called The Mind Map Book,1 advertised in later editions as enabling the reader to “unlock your creativity, boost your memory, change your life.” Good marketing, of course and, given that most books are one of the least expensive luxuries in life, well worth a purchase.

The book was very interesting, but it took time and some practice to appreciate its value. This column is a bit of an experiment, consisting as it does of a few illustrations (every one a mind map) and minimal text, all based on the book.

The mind map technique (figure 1) is not a silver bullet or a magic potion that will solve all the challenges of life. Instead, it is designed to help the user focus on one topic (the “would you like to” in figure 1) and link to it those things considered most relevant using as few words as possible and, most important, get it all done in just one page.

A familiar example might be to mind map “how to recruit a new IS auditor.” Readers of this article can quickly come up with many issues that are pertinent to this objective, e.g., areas of specialization, qualifications, experience, the business case. By placing “recruit new IS auditor” in the center of a page, preferably in landscape, it becomes possible to group the issues just listed, relate them, check them for completeness and share the result with others. A fully developed mind map on “recruit a new IS auditor” can be found in later in this article.

These are the associations the mind map creator’s brain has with “recruit a new IS auditor.” Other people could have totally different ones, and comparing them may reveal some interesting topics to discuss further.

If discussions or further reflection show that something has been missed, it can easily be added. In this way, all the thoughts that were already floating in the mind of the map’s creator are now organized in a visible and meaningful way. Having this organized view can then help to make informed decisions and understand the potential complexities that may arise (i.e., agreement of the human resources [HR] function, budget issues) and the many choices to be made (i.e., to employ or contract out, importance of soft skills).

And what has this to do with memory? The answer is simple, but not obvious: The brain is a visual organ and easily remembers pictures and diagrams. Reading linear text is an “unnatural” act as the characters need to be processed individually because they are arbitrary allocations of a shape to a sound. Making an effort to read text in an unfamiliar alphabet will make this concept clear.

I have used the technique when writing an article or preparing a presentation. The process takes three steps:

  1. A fairly quick mind map with very few words (it does not matter if it is done by hand or using software}
  2. Revision and ordering for good flow
  3. Transition into text or presentation pages (again using as few words as possible

This turns out to be a great time saver and leads to a “right first time, every time” result.

Going Further

Once learned, mind mapping is easy to do, and practice makes perfect. Therefore, it is good to indulge the “inner child” in all of us and use crayons or colored pencils to do sketches and ensure that both sides of the brain (the logical and the artistic) are engaged (figure 2).

This stimulates the creative process, encourages making associations between things that may appear unrelated and encourages the designer to think freely about the topic in focus.

Those who use this approach are likely to be surprised by the number of times someone looking at the elements in a mind map says, “I would not have thought of that.”

Things to Do Using Mind Mapping

Mind mapping is a very individual activity as it relates to how associations are made in a person’s mind. One thing is certain: At least one of the examples listed here could be useful in the professional activities of many people. It is important to not be concerned if at first others regard the activity as strange. Those unfamiliar with mind mapping may well decide to learn the technique once they see how useful it can be for endeavors including:

  • Note taking—This becomes more effective than the traditional approach. Each idea can be placed where it fits, regardless of the order of its presentation. It encourages summarizing each concept in a few words. The resultant mind map can be seen and memorized and helps in developing a “big picture.”
  • Learning and overviewing—Because a mind map builds a larger view of a subject, it helps in understanding the links and connections among the various component parts and exploring them in more detail. This works well when drawing a mind map of a textbook while reading it. The process of creating the mind map increases the amount of information that is absorbed from the book and results in a one-page summary of all the things that matter. The same approach can be used in the preparation of training material.
  • Creative writing and report writing—These are greatly assisted because a mind map rapidly produces a large number of ideas that can be organized into related groups or topics. The same applies to the preparation of presentations or speeches.

In addition, mind maps can be also used for:

  • Communicating complex issues—A single-page format allows a good understanding of the whole and its parts, particularly when it shows explicitly how items are associated or related.
  • Meetings—These can be supported by mind mapping in several ways: preparing the agenda, chairing, engaging the participants, making arrangements and even taking the minutes. If the corporate culture allows it, the minutes can be done quickly and efficiently because there is no need to spend time and effort writing long strings of text (as in “Mr. X stated that ABC and this was refuted by Ms. Y on the grounds that XYZ”). The important point is to allow the brain to listen actively to what is being said.
  • Negotiating—A mind map can neatly summarize important issues, each position and freedom of action, options, etc., in one sheet and, thus, play a role in maintaining focus during the negotiations. Of course, not all negotiations can be concluded satisfactorily when the issues are many, complex and tainted by long histories of disagreement. These fall outside the scope of auditing.

A Simple Example of a Mind Map on an Audit Topic

Figure 3 is intended as an example of how many items can be included in a single page and how little text is needed to document them. In the same way that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” “a mind map is worth a hundred pages.” This is especially helpful in avoiding instances of a text being written collaboratively, during which hours may be spent arguing about a word or a semicolon.

No doubt you will find things to add, remove or relocate in figure 3. Some may even say, “So what? I have been doing this so long I do not need to be told.” This may be true, but not everyone may be in such a happy position.

You may have noticed that a similar approach—summary diagrams showing the relationship of items—is consistently applied through the COBIT 5 family of documents, and the insight the diagrams offer greatly facilitates studying the material.

It was mentioned earlier that mind mapping needs only paper, crayons and erasers. However, there are also many sources of software that support this technique, ranging in price from almost free to what many would consider excessive. The advantages of a software product include the ability to share electronic documents, keep multiple versions of mind maps in well-organized folders and, once the quirks of the software have been mastered, produce neater maps more quickly.

There are numerous online sites2 that give access to mind maps created by thousands of individuals on almost every subject. There are also many books in many languages that can offer guidance to improve skills.


In a world characterized by information overload, a technique that can help with understanding, organizing and capturing salient points can be a lifesaver. Mind mapping is a proven tool that enables the selection and meaningful illustration of interrelated topics. Not only can it save you considerable time in assimilating valuable information, it supports the recall of that information by leveraging the brain’s predilection for visual over verbal memory. Given the rapid pace of change in technology—and the subsequent publication of reams of material (or bytes) describing the change—anyone who works in a technology field, such as IS auditors, risk and control specialists, and information security professionals, can benefit from the mind mapping approach and structure.


1 Buzan, T.; B. Buzan; The Mind Map Book: How to Use Radiant Thinking to Maximize Your Brain’s Untapped Potential, Plume, USA, 1996

Ed Gelbstein, Ph.D., 1940-2015
Worked in IS/IT in the private and public sectors in various countries for more than 50 years. Gelbstein did analog and digital development in the 1960s, incorporated digital computers in the control systems for continuous process in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and managed projects of increasing size and complexity until the early 1990s. In the ‘90s, he became an executive at the preprivatized British Railways and then the United Nations global computing and data communications provider. Following his (semi)retirement from the UN, he joined the audit teams of the UN Board of Auditors and the French National Audit Office. Thanks to his generous spirit and prolific writing, his column will continue to be published in the ISACA Journal posthumously.

Stefano Baldi
Is an Italian career diplomat and an early adopter of information systems and communications as well as a driving force for the more extensive use of online learning. Baldi is the director of training at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His diplomatic postings have included serving as the permanent representative of Italy at the UN in Geneva, Switzerland; and, subsequently, New York City, New York, USA, and at the European Union in Brussels, Belgium. Baldi has authored and coauthored several books on diplomacy-related topics and, with Gelbstein, has run courses for diplomats from around the world on topics such as information management and information security.


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