Questions & Answers on Knowledge Mapping

Bernadette Wright, PhD

Created 11/22/2019



The following blog – Questions & Answers on Knowledge Mapping – was written by Bernadette Wright, PhD, research and evaluation consultant at Meaningful Evidence. 

In the October 17, 2019, M&E Thursday Talk, we shared new techniques for using knowledge mapping to integrate and visualize information (recording available here). Knowledge mapping (also called practical mapping) is a visual diagram of our understanding of a program or topic. That understanding can come from many sources:

  • Collaboration with people with personal or professional experience in the issue
  • Research studies 
  • Your own program evaluation, data collection, and tracking
  • Collaboration with other researchers

During the webinar, participants asked some great questions. Read on for a summary of the 10 questions and my more detailed answers.

What are the advantages of the knowledge map versus a traditional logframe?

Like many things in evaluation, it depends on your purpose. Traditional logframes, and similar formats such as logic models, are good for communicating the big picture. They show the few key things (such as activities, outcomes, and objectives) that you will do and measure and the causal relationships between them. They are typically no larger than one page, so people can read and understand them quickly. The Better Evaluation website provides an introduction to logframes

However, we can’t solve big problems (such as access to education, economic well-being, and world peace) with a simple map. When you are tackling complex issues, you might want both a traditional logframe type of map for articulating the big picture and a more detailed knowledge map for practical action planning. Each of the activities, outcomes, and other items in your logframe could be the focus of a more detailed knowledge map. Each knowledge map could support managers and workgroups in planning action in their specific area, while also showing how their work connects to overall goals.

What’s another purpose of mapping, for example measuring unintended impacts?

Yes, in addition to measuring whether our map is working as we expect, exploring the potential unintended impacts is also important. Too many programs fail, or have unanticipated negative effects, because of problems that could have been avoided. By gathering information to improve our understanding of the situation—to build better knowledge maps—we can often identify potential unwanted effects and how to avoid them. 

What are your top three tips on doing a knowledge mapping exercise?

To create a useful knowledge map…

  • First, include a broad range of perspectives. Involve all groups with a personal or professional interest in your activities, including people who are affected by the problem. Make sure that your map incorporates how they see things. That will make your map more relevant–and hence more likely to work as planned. 
  • Second, strive to make the concepts (circles) on your map measurable. We might not be able to measure everything, and that’s OK. However, the more of our map we can back up with data and facts, the more confident we can be that our map will guide us to effective decisions. Our measures can come from many sources, such as collaborative mapping sessions, program evaluation, research studies, and other data collection and tracking.
  • Third, strive to improve your knowledge map’s structure. Research shows that when our knowledge is better structured, it has greater chances of success in practical application. The key here is to increase the percent of circles (concepts) on your map that have more than one causal arrow pointing to them. When we understand more than one thing that helps cause more or less of something, we have better ability to plan the best path to achieving that goal.

If you’d like more specific tips on creating a knowledge map with a group, see our Tips for Facilitating Groups guide, available on the Practical Mapping website.

What are the benefits of knowledge mapping over other approaches, including systems mapping and evidence gap maps, such as those from 3ie?

Different types of maps are useful for different purposes. A systems map is a knowledge map of a system—it shows the relevant variables in a system and causal relationships between them. An example is the systems map of the Hewlett Foundation Madison Initiative. Our knowledge mapping approach expands on the usual systems mapping approach by adding a focus on assessing and strengthening our maps by analyzing the map’s structure.

An evidence gap map is a grid showing which combinations of interventions and outcomes we have studies to support—and where we need more information. Unlike a knowledge map, an evidence map does not show all the steps in the causal chains leading from the interventions to the outcomes. So, while an evidence gap map can be useful for planning research, a knowledge map provides a more complete guide for action planning. Some example evidence maps are available on the 3ie website.

In systems maps, you can often have an arrow that goes both ways. Is there a way in knowledge mapping to see arrows that go both ways?

Yes, absolutely, in knowledge mapping the arrows can go in any direction, and we often see arrows that go in both directions. We can also have larger loops, for example, where more A causes more B, more B causes more C, and more C causes more A. Loops show potential self-sustaining cycles, where we can achieve greater results with less effort.

Have you seen the programs that you worked with take up and own these maps?

Yes, we find that people find the knowledge maps useful when they are involved in building the maps. At one organization, people were still talking about the knowledge map they created together a year later. Another organization asked the facilitator to help them to update their knowledge map the following year.

Can you explain the slide “evaluate your map on paper?” How should we analyze the graphic?

“Evaluate your map on paper” slide

Knowledge Mapping

You can analyze your map “on paper” based on its structure in two key ways. 

  • First, count the total number of concepts (circles) on your map. More concepts on your map means that you understand more of the relevant aspects of your situation, and hence have greater ability to reach your goals and avoid roadblocks. Looking at the blue bars in the figure, we see that Map 1 has more concepts (149 concepts) than Map 2 (95 concepts). The integrated map, created from integrating the two maps where they overlap, has more concepts (198 concepts) than either of the two individual maps.
  • Second, we count the number of concepts that have more than one arrow pointing to them. Concepts that have more than one arrow pointing to them show items that are better understood. Looking at the grey bars in the figure, we see that Map 1 has more concepts with more than one arrow (15 concepts) than Map 2 (13 concepts). The integrated map has more concepts with more than one arrow (27 concepts) than either of the individual maps. That shows a benefit of integrating our knowledge maps.

In peacebuilding, sometimes it’s very hard to measure the direct effect of your intervention. Can a map show correlation as well as causation?

Yes, often we can’t isolate a direct causal link between an activity and an effect. The arrows are not meant to show isolated effects. If you prefer, you can think of the arrows on your map as showing where something “helps cause,” rather than “causes,” a particular outcome.

How is knowledge mapping similar to contribution analysis?

One step in contribution analysis is to develop a knowledge map type of diagram, so a knowledge map can be part of a contribution analysis. Contribution analysis provides a structured process for gathering and assessing the evidence for a particular contribution story, as shown in a knowledge map type diagram. This brief from the Institutional Learning and Change Initiative (ILAC) provides an introduction to contribution analysis.

Have you used this kind of knowledge mapping for designing a program?

Yes, for several of our projects, we have supported nonprofit organizations to develop strong knowledge maps for designing a program, training, or initiative. I love working with organizations to develop strong knowledge maps for designing a program, because that lets us focus our resources and time where they are likely to do the most good.

What other questions do you have? 

You can leave a reply here or email me at with your questions about knowledge mapping.

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