Relational Mapping

Relational Mapping

Why Map?

Radford (1995) developed relational mapping in South Africa while facilitating and training other facilitators in deep-rooted conflict reconciliation. Since its first use in 1987 it has evolved as a simple, easily taught method for assisting facilitators to understand complex conflict systems.


The importance of being able to stand back from the complexity of a conflict system is critical in analysing and facilitating conflict. In analysing conflict, use is made of conceptual frameworks which determine the nature of the questions asked. However a theoretical framework or worldview should not dominate the analysis or draw attention away from that which most concerns the people involved. Those individuals who are part of conflict hold valuable knowledge and insight into the ways in which the conflict is sustained or changed. How does one get a sense of the elements of a conflict system and the relationship between those elements? Relational mapping is designed as a simple tool to assist conflict analysis.

Conflict systems often present a large amount of ambiguous and unprocessed information, which may create a sense of information overload for anyone trying to develop clarity (Anthony, Bennett, Maddox, & Wheatley, 1993). Analysis is often based on information received from participants who may not understand, and possibly who do not have the tools to understand, their conflict. Therefore, a method is required to crystallise this understanding for both observer and participant.

Relational mapping is a technique that allows users to map their views, ideas, and perceptions in a visual format. Issues considered to be important to those creating the map may be included in a two or three-dimensional ‘picture’ – using objects symbolically to represent their unique views of the elements of the system. Two representational criteria, size and distance, are incorporated into the technique. Size is used to represent the influence elements exert on the system and parts thereof, while distance represents the closeness, or lack thereof, in relationships between parts of the ‘map’ (Radford, 1995). The technique is based on the theory of cognitive mapping – seen as a process through which individuals create, in an external graphical form, their mental models, that is, the unique ways in which they comprehend a specific domain (Langfield-Smith, 1992)

The construction of individual realities

It is argued that individuals have a limited ability to manage and process all the information they receive from the environment (Kiesler & Sproull, 1982; Swan, 1995). Within a complex conflict environment, understanding may be hampered by the cognitive frameworks, and the possible inability to consider all the factors simultaneously (Stata, 1996). In order to manage this information overload, Kiesler and Sproull (1982) note that individuals engage in a process of social perception – involving the selective encoding and incorporation of information into internal cognition. In this way, each individual develops his or her unique construction of reality.

Within the field of social perception, a number of principles have been developed to enhance understanding of the way in which the importance of environmental elements is assessed. These principles highlight the ways in which the process of perception may impinge on the individual’s ability to interpret information from the environment correctly and clearly, thereby affecting the development of the individual’s internal view of the world. Kiesler and Sproull (1982) report that amongst these are the augmentation principle (where events occurring despite strong counter- efforts are perceived as magnified in strength), and the discounting principle (where the presence of one strong cause decreases the perceived significance of others). Prahalad and Bettis (1996, p. 111) propose another influencing factor – the “availability heuristic” – wherein it is argued that decision making is often based on information that is most readily available or comes to mind most rapidly. The time span since information acquisition may play a role here, with the explanation of the environment being limited chiefly to the most recently acquired information. Striking occurrences are stored most clearly in the memory, and are easy to retrieve. Information that is slightly divergent from prior knowledge has also been found to be more readily incorporated into the internal perceptions of the individual, while that on extreme environmental changes is unlikely to be assimilated.

Eden, Jones, and Sims state that “reality is a construction by an individual rather than a perception of an objective reality” (1979, p. 7). In line with this view, it can be seen that the perception of intensity of an issue is strongly linked to the perceiver’s state – and may have less to do with the content of the environmental information. Each person’s view of conflict needs to be seen as individualistic, derived from the internal construction he or she holds of the environment. Without uncovering these internal views of the world, assumptions may go unchallenged and knowledge may be lost. Within this framework, knowledge can no longer be viewed only as ‘objective’ information – much valuable insight may only be gained through a subjective process of uncovering individual and group perceptions (Cavaleri & Fearon, 1996). In the psychological literature these internal views of the world are referred to as mental models, while the terms cognitive maps or mental maps are used to identify external depictions of these internal representations. For effective community, Senge (1990) argues the significance of surfacing, testing and improving these mental models. It is this that the relational mapping technique is oriented towards; providing a method through which these mental models, or subjective views of the world, can be uncovered.

The mental model concept, and cognitive mapping

Senge argues that one of the key reasons why insights, new methods and potentially successful ideas fail to get put into practice is due to the mental models, or “internal images of how the world works…that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting” (1990, p. 175). These mental models are pictures of our assumptions that are often deeply established due to their tacit nature (Senge, 1996; Senge, Kleiner, Roberts, Ross, & Smith, 1994). In a similar vein, Klimoski and Mohammed state that mental models are “a general class of cognitive constructs that have been invoked to explain how knowledge and information are represented in the mind” (1994, p. 405). The content and level of detail within these mental models is therefore individualistic. Highlighting the way in which individuals use these internal representations, Cossette and Audet argue that mental models serve as a “‘mirror’ of discourse engaged in” (1992, p. 326) by the individual, where the individual may question him or herself on characteristics and properties of the model.

These models are seen as operating in everyday circumstances, although their use is frequently an unconscious process (Gioia & Sims, 1986). They are active, in that they shape how people act through influencing how they perceive the world (Fiol & Huff, 1992; Senge et al., 1994). According to Senge et al., mental models have impact through allowing people to “navigate through the complex environments of our world” (1994, p. 235). One of the difficulties in developing an understanding of mental models held, is their tacit nature, as described by Senge (1996) and Senge et al.(1994). It is in the external representation of these mental models that cognitive mapping techniques play a role.

The theoretical basis for relational mapping falls within the field of cognitive mapping – the process through which individuals create, in an external form, the mental images or models that represent their way of comprehending the environment. Daniels, de Chernatony, and Johnson (1995), Langfield-Smith (1992), and Swan (1995) refer to cognitive mapping as a technique used to determine the content and structure of the mental models which people hold. It demonstrates in a graphical format how people integrate and simplify information about the environment. In considering traditional geographical maps, it can be seen that these include information about important physical landmarks, the information about the relationship between these landmarks and the routes between them (Fiol & Huff, 1992). In contrast, the environment in cognitive maps may range from a setting in which activities take place, to formations of groups, individuals and organisations. In this way, cognitive mapping provides a link between the individual’s perception of the ‘real world’ and the cognitive map – a graphical depiction of the particular way in which an individual sees a domain (Downs & Stea, 1977; Langfield-Smith, 1992). It yields a representation of information about elements of the environment, time/space frames and location (Downs & Stea, 1977), while locating the individual in relation to his/her environment and in this way displaying reasoning behind actions (Fiol & Huff, 1992). Sigismund Huff and Fletcher (1990) capture the link between cognitive mapping and mental models in a clear manner:

For our purposes cognitive mapping can be thought of as the science of cartography. The territory to be mapped involves organizationally relevant ‘mental relationships’ held by one or more individuals; and the cognitive map itself is ‘the representation on paper’ that models, often graphically, particular features of the chosen territory. (p. 403)

Importantly, cognitive maps represent subjective information (Eden, 1992), which may be based on irrational or rational thought (Fiol & Huff, 1992). They are intellectual constructions rather than maps of the real world (Cavaleri & Fearon, 1996). While the content of these maps may not closely mirror ‘reality’, the validity of such models for the holder is real (Brown, 1992; Eden et al., 1979). At the root of theory around cognitive mapping is the realisation that these representations do not necessarily have predictive value. To claim predictive value, they would need to be accurate depictions of reality, taking into consideration every factor that could impact on the system. Rather, as de Geus (1996) states, they are the models or perceptions of reality that exist inside the minds of individuals (and members of teams, when common models are held). Within the understanding that it is these social constructions of the world that people respond to, these personal views of the world may hold as much weight in the assessment of a conflict system as so-called ‘scientific’ measures. The actual correspondence with ‘reality’ may be of less importance due to the very real consequences of subjective perceptions (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).

It has been noted that the term ‘cognitive map’ tends to be rather deceptive, as it is often interpreted to mean that the elicited information is a representation of thinking or cognition (Eden, 1992). In evaluating whether the model is indeed a representation of cognition, two aspects of the mapping technique are important to consider. Firstly, the cognitive theory which directs the technique of representation needs to be adequate. The other influencing factor is the method through which cognition is elicited. Eden suggests that cognitive mapping may play a role through allowing articulation and reflection, in this way eliciting thoughts. If elicitation of thought depends on articulation, this elicitation will then always be “out of step with cognition before, during, and after the elicitation process” (1992, p. 261). Maps, therefore, are seen as tools for “reflective thinking” (Eden, Ackermann, & Cropper, 1992, p. 321), rather than models of cognition.

Relational mapping

In considering the concepts of mental models and cognitive maps, it is useful here to turn to relational mapping to allow for understanding of the distinction between these elements. Relational mapping was developed by Radford (1995), with the specific aim of fostering a means through which to understand the mental models of mediators in situations of conflict resolution facilitation. According to Radford, the technique is based on the theoretical foundations of cognitive mapping, and allows for the representation of relationships and processes in a symbolic map – in this way aiding the communication of perceptions. Particular design criteria adhered to in the development of this mapping technique included the need for a simple technique that would be easily taught and understood, a method that would not be culturally biased and would not be dependent on sophisticated or costly equipment. While the method was specifically devised within the framework of conflict analysis, it is conceivably beneficial for communication in any situation. When compared with the concepts described above, relational mapping can therefore be viewed as a form of cognitive mapping technique – in that it allows for the depiction of an individual’s or group’s internal perceptions (or mental models) in the format of an external ‘map-like’ structure.

Anthony et al. (1993) assert that individuals frequently make use of cognitive frameworks or maps, detailing cause and effect relationships, in order to arrange and make sense of their information. However, much information held by managers is not entirely understood by them or may be held unconsciously. While many people use ‘map-like’ structures to make sense of their environment and information around them, these maps are often internal and taken for granted. Anthony et al. therefore argue for the importance of making these mental structures more visible, suggesting that when people are able to visualise a problem or issue, they are able to develop more concrete thoughts, draw on greater memory and conquer many individual presumptions. Additionally, these authors propose that with more visible mental structures, individuals may be able to determine any potential consequences more imaginatively and thoroughly. This process of bringing mental models into the conscious, through visual processes, may apply to relational mapping due to its two-dimensional or three-dimensional visual nature.

Alongside the focus on mental models is a recognition of the need to suspend assumptions (in the form of mental models) in order to question their value and implications (DeChant, 1996). In order to engage in effective learning it is therefore important to begin the process of unearthing mental models, bringing the contents of these systems to the surface so that assumptions can be tested and greater understanding achieved (Prahalad & Bettis, 1996; Senge, 1990

Within this focus on mental models and the link with learning, de Geus (1996) cites the use of computerised methods used to accelerate learning – with the overall focus on the use of games or ‘experiments’ to test thoughts and challenge the mental models of organisational decision-makers. Here, use is made of a transitional object in which to store models or representations of the real world (such as computer models through which various views of reality can be portrayed). Fundamental to this process is the testing of mental models. Systems such as these allow for the management of contextual complexity, and importantly may aid learning through mistakes and experimentation – with the benefit of this learning occurring in an environment removed from the real-world context (Montgomery & Scalia, 1996). Learning is therefore indirect rather than direct (Bennett, Wheatley, Maddox, & Anthony, 1994). Stata (1996) argues that systems dynamics has been used as a tool to share mental models – in this way creating a language through which understanding can be developed, and a means through which to convey knowledge and experience. Through this process of sharing and conveying ideas, learning can occur as part of the reflective process.

For a more technological approach to mapping, a wide range of computerised mapping tools has been developed, with great variance in the level of possible detail and analysis. De Geus (1996) argues benefits of computerised systems in three key areas. Firstly, they allow for a mapping of all the factors that impact on the system, more than any individual could manipulate in their mind when trying to determine the impact of various changes. Secondly, by considering all the factors in the system, numerous cause and effect relationships can be uncovered, rather than only the immediately obvious ones. Thirdly, he argues that through the process of model manipulation, people can differentiate between essential and unnecessary information.

However, within this focus on the use of computer models, some concerns need to be raised. While these systems may benefit the elicitation and sharing of mental models, those who are not comfortable with the tools or technology may become alienated. It also needs to be questioned whether, by using sophisticated systems, accessibility is limited, in that the physical development of the model is placed in the hands of a computer expert following a process of interaction with participants. Information in this process also undergoes a further level of interpretation. According to Senge (1997), the management and understanding of elaborate human systems is seen as one of the key difficulties facing organisations, alongside the need for a tool to enhance this understanding. Computerised methods may not allow for this focus, due to the possible inability of computer systems to fully represent the human and emotive elements of a system. In addition, Senge cautions that technology may add complexity beyond manageable levels, although it may also contribute to understanding.

Methods for elicitation of mental models

While mental models and their role in driving behaviour has been recognised, it is the elicitation of these internal world-views that creates debate. Nonaka (1996) suggests that critical to uncovering and being able to test and understand the tacit knowledge or insights held by individuals is the process of articulation. Tacit knowledge is described by Stake as:

all that is remembered somehow, minus that which is remembered in the form of words, symbols, or other rhetorical forms…. Tacit knowledge includes a multiple of inexpressible associations which give rise to new meanings, new ideas, and new applications of the old. (1978, p. 6)

One reason why the articulation process is frequently experienced as difficult is the fact that tacit knowledge is so personal, and is often so deeply held that full awareness and articulation becomes difficult. As a result, merely asking for the mental model from which a person operates is not necessarily a successful approach (Nonaka, 1996). Instead, more creative methods (for example, through original methods of analysis and questionnaire use) need to be developed in order to elicit these models (Argyris & Schön, 1974).

Many of the methods to elicit mental models include the involvement of an expert to draw out and synthesise information in a process separate from participants. These methods fit in with what has been termed ‘preordinate evaluation’, where the “evaluator takes some action that provokes a response from someone,…and aggregates, analyzes, and interprets it” (Braskamp & Morrison, 1975, p. 34). The expert therefore has ultimate control over the outcome of the evaluation or assessment. In contrast, relational mapping allows participants to generate and synthesise their thoughts into maps by themselves. When compared with many of the complex methods utilised (such as process maps in business reengineering), relational mapping technique is conceptually sound, but simple enough for an array of participants to engage.

Relational mapping is a methodology that may be used to determine the nature and content of either individually held mental models, or collectively held mental models.

Potential benefits and hazards of relational mapping

The potential benefits and drawbacks of the relational mapping technique are outlined below, within three key focal points. While these are labelled from the positive perspective, it is recognised that the method may incorporate drawbacks within each of these frames. These frames include the generation of understanding, communication enhancement, and the promotion of empowerment and problem solving.

1. Generating understanding

Klimoski and Mohammed (1994) state that individual processes, such as cognitive mapping, help to screen out excessive information, thus decreasing the chances of information overload and unbearable levels of indecision. These processes are fundamental as they aid the way in which one ascribes meaning, and develops understanding – that is, the way in which individuals make sense of their world. Cognitive mapping may allow for the simplification of experience into meaningful information, thereby providing a means for individuals to cope with volume and complexity (Anthony et al., 1993; Downs & Stea, 1977).

It is also understood that cognitive mapping leads to the focusing of attention, and frequently triggers memory, therefore allowing for the structuring of issues in the individual’s internal map (Fiol & Huff, 1992). According to Cossette and Audet (1992), cognitive mapping frequently highlights information that would be difficult to elicit by other means. Additionally, the articulation process itself may have a significant impact on future and present cognition (Cossette & Audet, 1992; Eden, 1992; Eden et al., 1992). Eden et al. argue that the process of interviewing, with the intention of formulating a cognitive map, assists in developing the individual’s thinking around the topic. The procedure of thinking with the aid of mapping may provide for a cathartic experience – allowing for the elicitation of information (Cossette & Audet, 1992; Eden, 1992). The experience may also prompt a change in thinking (Eden, 1992). As with other forms of cognitive mapping, the relational mapping procedure may have a positive influence on cognition through providing room for this articulation process to occur.

However, in exploring the value of cognitive mapping techniques in organising information, Eden et al. (1979) caution whether all concepts can be captured clearly in maps, and whether through the classification of certain ‘woolly’ concepts, some of the meaning may be trivialised. In considering this view of Eden et al., it is noted that this concern only applies in the context of a third party interpreting the map. These authors also suggest that, without understanding the context within which the map was constructed, some of the elements may be misinterpreted. Other concerns relate to the formation of fixed models that may prevent the elicitation of new thought. According to Hill and Levenhagen (1995), when formal mental models are developed, learning tends to become first order in nature (with the focus placed on maintaining equilibrium, rather than questioning fundamental values, beliefs, and norms). In this way, understanding may be decreased. Fiol and Huff (1992) raise an additional concern: that when too much focus exists as a result of cognitive mapping, a form of ‘tunnel vision’ may be created, leading to a narrow viewing of the world. Alternatively, when too little focus exists after the utilisation of cognitive mapping, an incomplete, almost splattered, view is formed. When considering the relational mapping technique in particular, the literature describes how the technique was developed with a focus on simplicity, and easy access to all users regardless of education level or literacy abilities (Radford, 1995).

According to Lilienfeld (1978), the generation of multiple cognitive maps provides an opportunity to view the perceptions of numerous individuals in a systemic and holistic manner. In a similar vein, the use of relational mapping in conflict analysis may enable a fuller holistic representation and viewing of the participants’ perceptions regarding the conflict process. This could be of benefit to all involved. The conflict facilitators may increase their understanding of processes and dynamics, unexpressed or unstructured without the technique. They may also develop greater clarity of their role, how others view them, and their position in relation to the change. In addition, through the clarification of assumptions afforded by the maps, participants may gain a fuller understanding of the process themselves, as well as an understanding of why others respond as they do. Senge (1990) remarks that one of the biggest difficulties people have in terms of seeing a holistic picture of a situation, is the tendency to want to piece elements together. One of the potential benefits of relational mapping is that it encourages the users to consider all relevant factors and their relationships to each other when approaching the assessment, thereby reinforcing the systemic nature of conflict. The process may therefore aid in the development of a sense of interconnectedness and an understanding of the interaction between parts – a need identified by Senge (1997) as essential for learning.

Any analysis of conflict will benefit from information and ideas that emerge from as wide a range of sources and perspectives as possible. Where shared mental models do exist, Klimoski and Mohammed (1994) argue that the implementation of decisions occurs more quickly, and there tends to be greater use made of all mental resources, as well as greater facilitation of the processes of problem definition, evaluation and option generation. We have found that where there is the perception of shared understanding, parties may be more motivated, and there may be greater cohesion and trust between groups. On a more general level, shared visions, aspirations, and mental models are recognised as aiding community and organisational success (Prahalad, 1997; Senge, 1997; Vaill, 1996).

It is argued that during the generation of a team mental model, it is critical that the process is viewed as one of sharing, rather than as a win-lose situation where some views are given more credit than others. Where a zero sum or win-lose mentality does exist, the true benefits of sharing may never be realised (Mayo & Lank, 1997). These team mental models are considered to be greater than the sum of their individual parts as they form collective beliefs (Klimoski & Mohammed, 1994; Langfield-Smith, 1992; Montgomery & Scalia, 1996). However, through a process of ‘group think’, they may in fact be less than the sum of their individual parts. The desire for unanimity may outweigh any drive to explore or assess various options for action (Langfield- Smith). Cognitive mapping (and therefore relational mapping) may prove to be a liability when used to develop team/group mental models, as much of the variability and detail of individual models may be lost in the process (Fiol & Huff, 1992; Klimoski & Mohammed, 1994).

Additionally, even if the joint mental model is incorrect, the group may find it difficult to abandon such a model due to the fact that it has been arrived at through consensus. With a mental model derived through consensus, individuals tend to disregard discrepant information, and individual creative problem solving may be inhibited (Klimoski & Mohammed, 1994). Alternatively, where there is too little agreement over mental models the opposite of ‘group think’ may occur – the fragmentation of thought (Fiol & Huff, 1992). It is argued by Fiol and Huff that when the complexity of cognition of team members, and the diversity among team members, is too great, attempts at cognitive mapping may be unsuccessful. This diversity may become dysfunctional, leading to a lack of integration. There are a number of other potentially negative consequences that may arise as a result of relational mapping. It has been noted that if teams, individuals or groups attempt to develop a rigid model of thinking when using a cognitive mapping technique, they may lose a degree of flexibility necessary to negotiate a constantly changing environment. System adaptability may therefore be decreased through the freezing of perceptions and a difficulty in adapting when the situation changes (Hill & Levenhagen, 1995, Hunt, 1996; Mayo & Lank, 1997).

2. Enhancing communication

Communication of the experience of conflict may be enhanced through the use of the relational mapping technique, as its non-directive approach is in contrast with many methodologies utilised in analysis, such as interviews, observation and questionnaires. Relational mapping allows for participants to include in the map what they feel is important (Radford, 1995). According to Downs and Stea (1977), cognitive mapping techniques take individual perceptions into account, therefore providing richness in information. Individual views of the world may differ according to factors such as age, nationality, social group experience and religion. With the method of cognitive mapping, individuals can choose which elements are important enough to include, and which should be excluded. While cognitive mapping may be personal enough to allow for variations, it can also be used as an aid in communicating individual perceptions. We argue that a possible benefit is the ability of the individual to represent his/her perceptions through the relational map independent of language or communication abilities. The methodology may be applied successfully in varying contexts, as it is understood not to be organisation-specific.

3. Promoting empowerment

All deliberate action is seen as having a cognitive basis that reflects the individual’s models of the world (Argyris & Schön, 1978; Eden, 1992). For this reason, cognitive mapping is useful and important as, with the realisation that our understandings inform much of our behaviour, the developed maps may shed light on behavioural motives. From the same perspective, relational maps, generated during the assessment of a conflict system, may improve overall understanding of certain behaviours, and show reasons for resistance or movement within the process of change. Eden et al. (1992) state that cause maps, a popular version of cognitive mapping, have been used frequently to explore the cognitive patterns of organisational members. Divergent views and assumptions, surfaced through the maps, may explain unpredicted behaviour (Cox & Zannaras, 1973; Radford, 1995) or may aid prediction of future behaviour (Downs & Stea, 1977).

This reasoning could equally apply to relational maps indicating possible future behaviour.

According to Bennett et al. (1994), when people are required to make a decision in an difficult conflict situation, they frequently make use of a limited collection of values and rules, derived from previous situations, to reach the outcome. A large quantity of knowledge therefore goes unused.

It has also been found that individuals often struggle to understand concepts in adequately concrete terms, with creative solutions often resulting from the development of an internalised image of the problem. According to Anthony et al. (1993), it is more likely that worthwhile contributions can be made when people hold a valid and rich understanding of the context in which they are situated. For this reason, we argue that it is important, within a conflict situation, to investigate existing mental models. In this way, assumptions hampering the conflict process may be exposed, and a fuller comprehension of the process may be developed, as seen by those involved. It is also suggested that through understanding and greater involvement, more meaningful contributions may be made, and commitment to the process and outcomes may also be increased. In addition, categorising information through cognitive mapping is seen as efficient and fast – it requires less mental energy from the individual. In the process of learning from experience and envisioning an ideal state of affairs, problem solving and capacity for learning may be enhanced (Mayo & Lank, 1997). Specifically, cognitive maps (and relational mapping) serve as a facility for creative problem solving.

Mapping the System

Through relational mapping, the individual’s understanding of their position in relation to the conflict system could potentially be improved, and used to solve problems and gain a greater sense of influence on the conflict system. Anthony et al. (1993) propose that the use of visualisation and imagery allows individuals to envision an ideal state of affairs, while assisting in providing a framework for predicting, describing and explaining future states. Relational mapping may, through its nature, allow for this visualisation and graphic expression of ideas. In addition, Cossette & Audet (1992) state that representation, especially in the format of a schema, serves as an orienteering, guiding and monitoring instrument that aids in the individual’s actions and assists in reflection. It allows individuals to understand their experiences and make inferences (Klimoski & Mohammed, 1994). Relational mapping assists in “comprehending the mappers’ understanding of particular, and selective, elements of the thought” of a group, individual, organisation or group (Eden, 1992, p. 262) – thereby allowing for personal understanding, and a sharing of this with others.


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John Radford Ph.D Organizational Psychology

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