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Guest column: Will Banning PowerPoint Save the Knowledge Worker?

By on July 14, 2011One Comment

Although the impact of a tool is in large part determined by the way it is used, there are certain tools that by their very design can have a negative impact on productivity.

PowerPoint, a familiar tool to all knowledge workers, has attracted a large number of detractors over the years.  As the go-to business presentation tool, it is ubiquitous and almost a requirement in formal business interactions to present a slide deck with the requisite company information, colorful collection of company logos slides, series of bullet points, a few quotes, some charts, and although this thankfully seems to have fallen out of fashion, perhaps a clever animation of some sort.

Unfortunately, the metaphor of a PowerPoint presentation, that is, a linear progression of high-level talking points, is not necessarily well suited for knowledge work.  Over a year ago, in April of 2010, The New York Times spoke with several military officers who blamed the tool for oversimplifying issues and fostering the illusion that people understand complex problems when they actually don’t.  General James N. Mattis, U.S. Marine Corps, did not mince words when he said that “PowerPoint makes us stupid”.

The gist of the comments by military commanders in the New York Times piece was that creating the massive amount of PowerPoint slides that have become overly time-intensive and that “the program stifles discussion, critical thinking and thoughtful decision making.”

Taking the criticism of PowerPoint one step further, the Anti-PowerPoint Party (APPP) in Switzerland has recently called for a referendum on banning the use of the tool for presentations, instead advocating the use of the time-tested paper flip chart.  The group claims that the use of PowerPoint costs the Swiss economy 1.2 billion Swiss Francs, or $2.5 billion.  The estimated cost is based on a series of assumptions that range from the somewhat logical, that 11% of the country’s 4.1 million employees participate in PowerPoint presentations twice a week on average, and that the average number of participants is 10, to the slightly less-logical, that 85% of participants find the presentations “are killing motivation.” (To the APPP’s credit, they are very clear that they are operating on assumptions, not hard data.)

Despite the fuzzy estimation of the APPP’s economic impact, it is refreshing to see an attempt to critically examine the financial impact of a specific tool.  Through extensive surveying, our research at Basex has revealed the overall cost of Information Overload to the U.S. economy in 2010 to be nearly $1 trillion.  We have not looked yet at the specific cost of individual tools in that figure because we believe that the problem is a confluence of multiple factors, although isolating the cost at the tool level is an intriguing avenue of research.

While the APPP’s approach is a bit extreme, we do believe that the actions of individual knowledge workers can make a huge impact in reducing Information Overload.  An outright ban on PowerPoint is draconian and an overreaction to say the least.  However, if the proposed referendum spurs discussion and a reevaluation of the use of that tool, then there may be a positive impact on reducing Information Overload and increasing knowledge worker productivity.  We all no doubt would be happy to sit through even one fewer PowerPoint presentation.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

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