PowerPoint and Strategy

What Edward Tufte would make of the headline "Love It or Hate It, PowerPoint Shapes Strategy-Making, Says New Paper" I can't imagine.

Tufte is one of the people who makes a very good case for hating PowerPoint saying: Alas, slideware often reduces the analytical quality of presentations. In particular, the popular PowerPoint templates (ready-made designs) usually weaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis. What is the problem with PowerPoint? And how can we improve our presentations?

He presents his arguments in an essay The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching out the Corrupts Within. One of his examples in this is an analysis of the way NASA scientists used PowerPoint to make engineering presentations. In relation to this Tufte asks the question "Is this a product endorsement or a big mistake?" (Neatly suggesting the latter).

So now we have research from Sarah Kaplan, a Rotman professor of strategic management who studies strategy making in uncertain environments. She says "It's easy to say that PowerPoint is taking over and that's terrible … but what I observed is that the day-to-day use of PowerPoint is much more complex," in her view the technology creates a vehicle and 'discussion space' which can be used to shape idea generation and build corporate strategies"

A brief article about her work in Science Daily says that:

An eight-month examination of strategy making at a telecommunications company showed Prof. Kaplan that PowerPoint was more than just an omnipresent tool. It allowed for greater collaboration because more people had access to PowerPoint documents, it affected the parameters of the discussion (depending on what information was included, or excluded from the PowerPoint slides) and even shaped the influence individuals had in the strategy-building process (those with less facility using the technology lost status, those who possessed the "deck" of PowerPoint slides had greater power). By studying the daily use of PowerPoint in strategy making, it was possible to see how meanings were negotiated through PowerPoint use, as a means for both collaborative efforts to generate ideas and cartographic efforts to divide up territories and pursue individual or group interests.

The full research paper acknowledges Tufte's point about the potential for data mis-representation, saying

What emerges [from the research] is a multi-faceted view of PowerPoint. Its use enables actors to sort through and decipher complex and conflicting information. But, in doing so, these actors might simplify the data beyond usefulness or shape the information to suit a personal agenda. Some individuals' voices might be excluded while others might be amplified.

In some ways, this picture of PowerPoint lives up to the criticisms levied against it – the technology clearly enabled simplification, objectification and politicization. This may not be the whole picture, however. Those features are not necessarily "bad" in the sense that they were part of what made knowledge production possible in a highly uncertain context.

So users of PowerPoint should be aware of the pitfalls of over-simplification of the data but recognize that the discussion around the data can create shared understanding and meaning. (Obviously if the data is mis-leading the discussion will head off in the wrong direction as Tufte's analysis suggests).

A different analysis of PowerPoint compared the used of animated slides with non-animated slides on student learning.

Knowing that Microsoft PowerPoint has, over the last couple of decades, become the tool of choice for creating instructional slideshows Stephen Mahar of the University of North Carolina Wilmington and colleagues have explored the impact of custom animation in PowerPoint lectures and examined the idea that custom animation may, in fact, negatively impact student learning.

To test their hypothesis, the team recorded two versions of a PowerPoint lecture. The presentations differed only in the presence of animation to incrementally present information. They then showed students either the animated or non-animated lecture and then tested the students recall and comprehension of the lecture.

The team found a marked difference in average student performance, with those seeing the non-animated lecture performing much better in the tests than those who watched the animated lecture.

So it seems that users of PowerPoint should be judicious in their choices about the way they are designing their presentations. Like many other things it can be a force for good or ill.

My own peeve about PowerPoint is the single organization chart that it offers as a standard template. This is a classic hierarchy. I believe that if PowerPoint offered more options in organization chart structures there would be fewer hierarchically structured organizations.