PowerPoint and Failure to Communicate

As a tool for communicating data-derived insights, PowerPoint comes up repeatedly, praised or under fire, reflecting the office software's ubiquity, adaptability, and unfortunate ease of misuse.
It seems every 3-4 months that someone in the U.S. military gets in trouble for saying too much, or too little, in relation to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, sometimes about policy and sometimes about, essentially, the use and communication of data in conduct of the war. Of course it's data communications that's my topic today. And it's PowerPoint that comes up repeatedly, praised or under fire, reflecting the office software's ubiquity and adaptability in communicating data-derived insights.My blog article today was prompted by War consists largely of endless tinkering with PowerPoint slides, which appeared August 27 in Government Computer News. Writer Kevin McCaney reports, "An Army Reserve colonel serving at the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command in Afghanistan was fired after writing a harsh criticism of the military's use of PowerPoint slides in what he says is an unproductive, top-heavy environment." McCaney points us to now-former the U.S. Army Reserve Colonel Lawrence Sellin's Outside View: PowerPoints 'R' Us and to the Wired article Colonel Kicked Out of Afghanistan for Anti-PowerPoint Rant. PowerPoint reinforces a "battle rhythm" according to Sellin, where "progress in the war is optional." "Volume is considered the equivalent of quality" and "structure always trumps function." [Added Aug 31; thank you to reader Bill Brantley:] And it's not just Sellin who thinks, regarding PowerPoint, along these lines.

Sellin's power-points are valid but his method of delivery was obviously unacceptable. As the song goes,

You talk too much
You worry me to death
You talk too much
You even worry my pet
We can learn from this experience.

The talk too much incident that has won the most attention in recent years was the June firing of the military's commander in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, just days after Rolling Stone's The Runaway General appeared. An earlier McChrystal misstep was his public characterization of an Obama Administration official's advocated strategy as leading to a state of "Chaos-istan." Arrogance abounds, but also a search for clarity.

Military PowerPoint Afghanistan diagramThat we indeed have chaos instead, is the inference drawn from a PowerPoint slide meant to portray the complexity of American military strategy. Then-General McChrystal's April reaction, according to a New York Times report, was, "When we understand that slide, we'll have won the war."

Maybe so, but even if so, I give whoever created that slide an A For Effort and see slamming PowerPoint, the delivery vehicle, as an instance of the tried-and-true approach, Blame The Messenger. There's great, useful discussion of the point in a Q&A in The Tank, Does the Military Overuse PowerPoint? According to Michael Gordon, senior fellow, Institute for the Study of War and N.Y.Times correspondent, "With PowerPoint, the military has been moving toward an oral tradition and away from the written word, with all the demands for precision, nuance and serious exposition that writing requires. And it's not just a problem for the military. The procedure has become quite common in other areas of government, among contractors and in think tanks."

According to Dakota Wood, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C., "[PowerPoint] is good for graphics (maps, imagery, charts) used to quickly provide updates or to focus discussions (e.g. for millennia, military commanders have used maps to shape battle plans). It is a very poor way to transmit the complexity of operations, especially when detached from an accompanying narrative or explanation."

Gen. Stanley McChrystal was of course replaced as commander in Afghanistan by Gen. David H. Petraeus, former U.S. Army commander in Iraq. This brings us back to my first look at the military's data-communication challenge, Petraeus Does PowerPoint, dating back a few years. PowerPoint, as an information-delivery vehicle, imposes a linear narrative and often dissuades discussion. Will this old style reassert itself?

And among all the rest of us, industry BI practitioners and users? Our data communications practices, whether strategic, tactical, or operational (yes, Richard Hackathorn, the BI pyramid still needs to be squashed), are still rigid, in need of a smash-up and not just a mash-up.

In the immortal words of the movie Cool Hand Luke, "What we've got here is failure to communicate." In the movie, the chain-gang boss continues, "Some men, you just can't reach," where, by contrast, it's the person with the message (him) and that message (compliance with rules meant to subjugate) that are the real issue. That is, the parties understand one another and do communicate, albeit in ways contrary to their words. It's all part of a game within a rigid, hierarchical system.

Exploratory analysis, communicated as a learning process and without the restrictions on information flow that we fall into so readily when using PowerPoint, encourages rather than dissuades discussion. I'll wrap up with a link to Data Journalist David McCandless TED talk, Information Is Beautiful, via Matthew Hurst's Data Mining: Text Mining, Visualization and Social Media blog. Hearst comments, "David talks about the importance of providing relative views of data rather than absolutes."

Implicit is the notion that you should see for yourself, explore the data, communicate what's salient, discover something new and useful, break the strictures of rigid thinking. Think and communicate. That's the real point.

PowerPoint is a content container, content defined as data, graphics, information, and insights. It is a leading BI and analytics communications tool.

I've been doing BI and analytics drawing on structured (fielded data, typically numerical) and unstructured (typically text) sources for years and have communicated my thoughts in articles, presentations (yes, using PowerPoint), and consulting engagements. My latest initiative is Smart Content, an October 19 conference that overlaps many of the issues I've discussed here. Check out the conference Web site. We have a great line-up of speakers!As a tool for communicating data-derived insights, PowerPoint comes up repeatedly, praised or under fire, reflecting the office software's ubiquity, adaptability, and unfortunate ease of misuse.