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5 June 2010

At first blush, there is nothing thought provoking about PowerPoint. A computer program used for creating presentations, it is not sexy, not all over the news, not at the cutting edge. And it is made not by a hipster-beloved company such as Apple but by clunky old Microsoft.

Still, PowerPoint has been attracting some attention in recent years, although it is of the wrong kind. In a New York Times story in April, a US general was quoted as saying that “PowerPoint makes us stupid” – military personnel apparently spend an absurd amount of time creating and watching PowerPoint presentations. There is even a term for this: “death by PowerPoint”. The official investigation of the Columbia space shuttle disaster condemned NASA’s overreliance on PowerPoint: “The Board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication at NASA.” In other words, PowerPoint has become a substitute for meaningful discussion and can oversimplify complex issues.

In a new development, a strategy expert at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Sarah Kaplan, has investigated the usage of PowerPoint in a business setting. With her forthcoming paper in the journal Organization Science, she argues that PowerPoint is not just a tool for presenting ideas. It can actually determine a company’s strategy.

Kaplan performed her fieldwork at the office of an unnamed telecommunications company over eight months in 2002. She sat in over 30 meetings and conducted more than 80 interviews.

Notably, she found that it was advantageous to be in charge of the PowerPoint presentation for a strategy meeting. While many people may have collaborated on the slides, that employee shapes what is shown and thus, perhaps, the company’s direction. Not knowing how to work with PowerPoint was a major disadvantage. “Using PowerPoint signified managerial professionalism,” Kaplan writes.

Indeed, she discovered that the whole work process had come to be seen in terms of PowerPoint.

“Instead of being asked to do a new analysis, a team member would be asked to provide a slide on the topic; instead of disagreeing about an idea, participants disagreed with ‘charts’; deliverables were described in terms of ‘chart decks’ or ‘packs’ rather than in terms of strategies or decisions. In a similar vein, the strategy-making process was thought about in terms of the number of charts produced.”

Some employees were dismayed at the direction their firm had taken. “Everyone at [the firm] is a member of the Institute of PowerPoint because that’s how you communicate around here,” one of them told Kaplan.

In an interview with Monocle, Kaplan emphasised that she doesn’t view PowerPoint in a wholly negative light – it has democratised organisational processes. Previously, she said, producing professional-looking tables and charts was a work-intensive process often involving designers and audiovisual experts, and only senior staff may have had the authority to commission them. In theory, now anybody can contribute a slide or presentation and have their ideas heard.

That said, all these charts and decks and packs can be wearying. Kaplan says she feels somewhat shackled to the technology herself.

“When I go teach in an MBA classroom, I have to have PowerPoint documents because people want them. When I was a consultant at McKinsey, what we did was produce huge stacks of paper using PowerPoint.”


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