Sunday, August 9, 2009

What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate

The real danger is not that computers will begin to think like men, but that men will begin to think like computers. ~Sydney J. Harris

All those people predicting the apocalypse and waiting for the Antichrist have been looking in all the wrong places. The Antichrist is not some world leader or charismatic religious figure. It's Bill Gates.

Now I know a lot of people are going to be screaming, "I knew it!" It's not what you think. The reason he's the Antichrist is because his company created Powerpoint. It is Powerpoint that will cause the demise of humanity, at least according to The Inquirer.

Okay, the end-of-the-world part is tongue in cheek. The point, though, is that because of the ubiquity of Microsoft's presentation software, communication is being reduced to bullet points. And those bullet points aren't always the really important points that need to be raised. Interestingly, the article quotes Andrew Brook-Holmes of Microsoft who points out that Powerpoint is just a blank canvas dependent on what users do with it. According to the article, Mr. Brook-Holmes then backtracked, saying that perhaps Powerpoint wasn't suited to all users or uses.

The gentleman is so close yet so far.

The problem is that people no longer understand how to communicate information and the receivers of information have become so lazy that they don't want to have to determine what information is really important. The easiest way to explain what's going on is to go back in time.

When I first got into business many, many years ago, presentations were handled very, very differently than they are today. To begin with, the presenter actually created a report that included a description of the data acquisition method and the analytical methods performed. If the report required it, it would contain any graphs or tables necessary to summarize the data. In many cases, there would be an appendix that actually contained the data.

This report would be put into the hands of the people who were the target of the presentation before the event. Those people were expected to actually read the report before showing up, because the main function of the presentation was to summarize the research, present the conclusions, and recommend actions. All of this was in the report, of course, but now the audience, having read the document beforehand, could ask informed questions and raise objections or offer counterproposals.

Occasionally, some particularly clever presenter would use a flip chart or -- if the company was really up to date -- present some bullet-point slides on an overhead projector. If either of these was used, it was only to accentuate the points the presenter thought were important. However, everyone realized that this was the presenter's opinion. Only a foolish person accepted everything said at face value just because it was on a clever slide.

Well, times have certainly changed. I can't recall the last time I attended a presentation where I had so much as an outline of what was to be delivered. On a couple of rare occasions, I received a copy of the Powerpoint slides when the presentations were done, which is essentially useless (after all, I just saw those things). I can recall only one occasion in recent years where I actually got all of the data that was used to justify a recommended course of action. That came from a storage vendor, who I guess figured we might as well have the data, since we ran the program (which they supplied) that gathered the data.

In other words, we already had a copy of the data the vendor now generously gave us.

I have also sat in meetings where someone complained about some sort of "network problem" but was unable to tell us how often it occurred, what errors were generated when it occurred, or even when was the last time a user had encountered the problem.

No Powerpoint presentation in the world is going to fix that sort of "communication."

Somewhere along the line, we stopped caring whether what we were being told was accurate or even true. It's not presentation software that's causing disasters to occur; it's our unwillingness to say, "On what is that based?" or "Have you considered other alternatives?" or even "Is this the only course of action available?".

All of these are questions people used to ask. Now they just ask, "Can I have a copy of the slides?".

Powerpoint isn't the problem. We have gotten lazy. Oh, we blame it on "information overload", which is a lame way of saying, "I can't be bothered to determine what is important and what isn't." Well, the important things have a way of making their presence known. Unfortunately, that presence frequently becomes known as a result of something very bad happening. After that happens, of course, someone will create a bunch of bullet-point slides to explain why it was no one's fault.

And everyone is happy --- until the next catastrophe.

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