The National Security Archive is not a government organization even though its name may sound like one, but a research institute hosted by The George Washington University. The Archive published today a copy of “CentCom PowerPoint Slides Briefed to White House and Rumsfeld in 2002, Obtained by National Security Archive through Freedom of Information Act“. A very interesting read, but commenting on the meat of this is way off-topic for this blog (I have a “off-topic” category, but not a “way off-topic” one). One side aspect is only a little bit off-topic though, so I’ll indulge myself: it’s about this reflection on the use of PowerPoint, by Lt. Gen. McKiernan as quoted in Thomas Ricks’ book Fiasco:
“It’s quite frustrating the way this works, but the way we do things nowadays is combatant commanders brief their products in PowerPoint up in Washington to OSD and Secretary of Defense… In lieu of an order, or a frag [fragmentary] order, or plan, you get a set of PowerPoint slides… [T]hat is frustrating, because nobody wants to plan against PowerPoint slides.”
It’s an old debate whether PowerPoint is a mostly good tool for presentations (that is often misused) or basically a crappy tool for presentations (if you’re in the Bay Area I can lend you the Tufte essay). I generally tend to fall towards the former view. But what should not be a matter of debate is whether a PowerPoint document is a good communication vehicle on its own (rather than as support for a presentation). I very much agree with Lt. Gen. McKiernan that it is definitely not. And by only changing a few words I could turn his quote into one that describes some interactions in several software companies I know of, including my employer. And I would guess non-software companies too, there is no reason why this would be limited to the software industry and the military.