29 April 2010

A Minority Report: "Death to PowerPoint!"

Earlier this week, the New York Times "At War" blog asked for reader comments regarding Elisabeth Bumiller's feature on the military's over-reliance on Microsoft PowerPoint. The article is titled: "We Have Met the Enemy and He is PowerPoint."

As both civilian and solider, I've spent the past couple of years occasionally experimenting with out-of-the-box ways to use PowerPoint. For example, I've tried Pecha Kucha--20 slides, 20 seconds per slide, automatic-advance, no exceptions. I've tried to reduce any presentation into only 7 slides. Anything to avoid inflicting "death by PowerPoint" on friendly forces.

The following is a slightly expanded version of my remarks on the New York Times article (click here for my blogger buddy Kanani Fong's analysis of the same). It's still a work in progress, but it's the closest I've come to articulating some of what we're intellectually struggling with in today's Tactical Operations Center (TOC):

I’m a knowledge management team member in an Army brigade headquarters. Our focus is to “put the right information in the right hands at the right time.” To meet the commander’s requirements in how and what data is tracked and graphically presented, we dabble in a little art, a little science, and a little science-fiction--think Star Trek and The Minority Report.

It's also whole lot of on-the-job training and on-the-fly solutions. There are too many manuals on how to make our new computers do their thing, and not enough on how to make our humans do theirs.

A lot of it is “commander-centric,” of course--and dependent on what kind of learner the boss is: If the commander wants PowerPoint bullets, he gets bullets. If he wants drawings and photos, he gets pictures. If he’s color-blind, the staff needs to revisit its “red-is-bad, green-is-good” color-coding scheme. The medium has to be appropriate to the audience, even if the "audience" is just one guy.

It’s important to realize that PowerPoint and similar products affect how users both develop and present information. The former is hard to quantify, but maybe it will suffice to say that “when you use a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Breaking concepts into bullet points can a useful cognitive process, as long as it doesn't become a crutch. To avoid it becoming a crutch, the limitations of the tool have to be taken into account at all times. Otherwise, one runs the risk of forcing intellectually square pegs into inappropriate holes--or down bandwidth too small or slow to even transfer the file.

To illustrate, consider the Robert Frost poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” broken down into bullets:
  • Narrator pauses horse
  • Has miles to go
  • Needs sleep
Obviously, PowerPoint doesn’t do such a good job communicating such nuanced data as poetry. And counterinsurgency (COIN) isn't like the bare-knuckled prose of force-on-force warfare--it's more like tactical poetry.

Regarding the presentation of data, one of the most-significant efficiencies possible is limiting (or eliminating) the staff-time in collecting, collating, correcting, and culling PowerPoint slides. It frees up not only a poor Battle Captain with a PowerPoint Ranger shoulder-tab, but also all the staff worker bees who have to feed him/her information hours prior to the actual deadline.

If it takes 6 to 12 hours to prepare a briefing, that means the information that is eventually presented to the commander is, by definition, 6- to 12-hours old. It's "stale." It even risks being "inaccurate" to current conditions.

PowerPoint (and ‘storyboards”’) are static--snapshots in time. By migrating the presentation of information away from PowerPoint, and toward near-real-time data visualization and collaboration tools, we not only make our organizations more efficient, we make our warfighting capabilities more accurate, flexible, and effective.

Our KM team's goal is to prove to the commander that he doesn't need situational briefings, that he can sit down in front of two computer screens at any time of his choosing, and that we can digitally paint him a live-and-in-color picture of what's going on, right now, on the ground--with his people, equipment, and mission.

We may not rid ourselves of PowerPoint entirely, but, as my Engineer buddies say, "Essayons." In English: "Let us try."

Next slide, please.

(For more insights into the military's use and over-use of PowerPoint, click here and here.)


  1. There are many Army units who can't do any kind of breifing without PP. I sat at a crappy FOB in Iraq one time...the ground commander was fixin' to give the IG folks a PP show...it took him 20 minutes to get the lap top to work...and then his slides were:
    1.) The Unit Crest
    2.) The Title page: What bla bla bla..
    3.) Number of bla bla bla

    and that was it. I sat there dumbfound and was pretty sure the LTC was a retard...(he was and is now a COL).

    Why? Why did he think he needed to show those few slides before he could say anything? He was a RETARD.

  2. Yeah, baby! Give me TOTAL VISIBILITY on a dashboard and lose the spaghetti strategy slides! LOVE IT! But (with apologies to Dylan Thomas) those of us who've spent endless late-night hours, stressing over the perfect "silver bullet" for the next PPT deck will not go quietly into that good night. Rage. Rage...! ;-D

  3. Check out Google Docs or Google Wave for real-time data in any media you prefer (presentation, document, spreadsheet, etc.). This is an effective way to share information without having to ask others to "hurry up and give me" the information.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.