» Archive for July, 2011

Will Banning PowerPoint Save the Knowledge Worker?

Thursday, July 14th, 2011 by Cody Burke

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.

Is Infoveganism the Next Fad Diet?

Thursday, July 7th, 2011 by Cody Burke

Recently in this space, I discussed the ideas of Rolf Dobelli, a Swiss novelist whose white paper “Avoid News: Towards a Healthy News Diet” struck a real chord with us at Basex. We found his ideas refreshing, logical, and compelling, and have made some efforts to apply his thinking to our work.

Dobelli’s thesis, simply put, is that information obtained via the news is extremely damaging to us on multiple levels, ranging from our ability to form complex thoughts to our physical health. He argues that the news systematically misleads us and introduces numerous cognitive errors to our thinking, and advocates complete disengagement from all news sources. Obviously, this fits nicely with many of the things we at Basex have been saying about the problem of Information Overload and its negative impact on knowledge worker productivity and effectiveness.

His perspective, although extreme, is not in isolation. A new term has popped up that bears some examining, Infovegan. Coined by Clay Johnson, a technology thinker and open source information advocate, the term describes anyone who “makes a deliberate decision to remove a vast amount of news and information sources from one’s diet, sticking to a well constrained allowable set of consumption inputs for their own health’s sake.”

Johnson centers his analysis of Information Overload on the perspective that the problem is not the amount of information, but the overconsumption of that information. He points out that most people do not make conscious choices about what information to consume or not to consume, but when they do, they are subtracting information sources from their information diet in much the same way vegans cut animal products from their food diet.

The term Infovegan is not perfect in its application, and there are some actual vegans who object to the appropriation. Nonetheless, framing Information Overload as a consumption and health issue by using familiar terminology (the term vegan) may be helpful for many people, and serve as a useful analytical framework to examine the harm that Information Overload is doing, as well as ways to deal with the problem.

When we are asked, as we often are, to give people tips and rules for reducing Information Overload, we stress that individual actions make a huge impact. Vegans (the food kind) would no doubt agree and site numerous health and ethical benefits of choosing their diet and lifestyle.

Now, to be clear, we are not endorsing any particular diet when it comes to food (I’m a rib-loving BBQ enthusiast myself); however, when it comes to information, the Infovegan approach makes far too much sense to dismiss.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.