Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Power Point?

It’s a bad workman who blames his tools, right? When you get bad news, don’t blame the messenger, right? Two classic rules to live by.

Except if you’re in the US military.

Behold, Microsoft’s office workhorse: the much-maligned PowerPoint program. Have you ever sat through a PowerPoint presentation and wondered if all the slick graphics and animations are really only hiding the possibility the presenter has no idea what they’re talking about?

Apparently, our military has been suspecting that for years, and the limits of their patience with PowerPoint seems to have been reached, or so says an article in today’s New York Times.

If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to take a moment and read through this piece by reporter Elizabeth Bumiller, who combines a delightful wit with useful facts to create an engaging bit of insight into that realm known as military intelligence.

Or the lack of it. Which is what our generals want to find out.

Do the Powers That Be Have A Point?

I’ll let the military sort out what they’re going to do – or not do – with the PowerPoint epidemic which appears to be clouding judgment and obscuring reality from command posts to battlefields.

According to Bumiller, generals have begun to fault PowerPoint for mid-level officers spending their days creating .PPT slides instead of studying warfare tactics and planning offensives. Apparently, the fact that Microsoft just sells the product escapes them; if somebody wasn’t ordering reports to be provided in .PPT files, who would have to craft these presentations day after day? How classic of a displacement model is blaming PowerPoint for the military’s increasingly obvious problem of disguising real information with bullet points and blinking arrows?

Bumiller quoted Brigadier General H. R. McMaster as criticizing PowerPoint as “…dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control. Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.” Which, of course, is true.

But if it wasn’t for PowerPoint, generals would be getting their information from another reporting mechanism, which itself would probably be susceptible to the same types of “dumbing-down” overgeneralizations and misleading arrangement of facts by whomever prepared them that generals are griping about now. What did they use before PowerPoint, and if they don’t like it, why can’t they switch to the text-heavy report printouts they say they prefer?

Software As the New Scapegoat

Can PowerPoint be blamed for its increasing inability to accurately quantify and qualify the increasingly complex military situations in Iraq and Afghanistan? Is PowerPoint the reason one general didn’t convey precise instructions to his leaders in the field? Or is PowerPoint the scapegoat for a military increasingly under political and economic pressure to perform in environments which are radically different from any other type of warfare we’ve ever experienced?

If they didn’t have PowerPoint, what other mechanisms would underlings be using to say, “um, well, we really don’t have a grasp on what’s happening right now, but you generals say you want updates every day, so this is the way we’re going to make it look like we learned something in military school.”

What does this controversy have to say about the ability of our military leaders to identify legitimate sources of problems and develop solutions to mitigating processes that contain known flaws?

Hmmm... maybe if we want to win these wars, we should secretly buy and ship PowerPoint programs to the Taliban and al-Qaeda...

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