Would Patton survive in today's PowerPoint military?
The firing of an officer who complained about PowerPoint draws fire
- By Michael Hardy
- Aug 30, 2010
Our readers largely sided with an Army officer who was fired from his post in Afghanistan after complaining about what he saw as an over-reliance on PowerPoint slides instead of real information among the upper echelons there.
As we reported late last week, Army Reserve Col. Lawrence Sellin was relieved of duty with the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command in Afghanistan after writing a harsh criticism of the military’s use of PowerPoint slides in a regular column for UPI.
"For headquarters staff, war consists largely of the endless tinkering with PowerPoint slides to conform with the idiosyncrasies of cognitively challenged generals in order to spoon-feed them information," Sellin wrote in the column. "Even one tiny flaw in a slide can halt a general's thought processes as abruptly as a computer system's blue screen of death.
"The ability to brief well is, therefore, a critical skill," he added. "It is important to note that skill in briefing resides in how you say it. It doesn't matter so much what you say or even if you are speaking Klingon."
Our readers quickly jumped to Sellin's defense.
"Probably even the analysis to fire the guy was put into a briefing deck," wrote one unidentified reader. "I can certainly identify.... We spend an inordinate amount of time tweaking charts...changing bullet points to check marks; highlighting call out boxes; making sure there is something to 'decide' (since everyone wants to be a decider).... What a waste of resources."
"Sadly, the colonel is right," wrote commenter Carl F. of Dallas. "The military has become so enamored with PowerPoint that it is rapidly losing track of its real mission and replacing it with a pablum-type spoon-fed mini-information series of slides that can't come close to truly clarifying muddy water, much less the war. Unfortunately, if today's military leaders were to put up against the Axis forces of [World War II], we'd all be speaking German or Japanese -- which we'd learn from them via PowerPoint."
Responding to Carl F., reader C.J. wrote: "I'm not so sure we'd be speaking German or Japanese at this point, but because the 'briefing' mentality is pretty cross-cultural, I'm more inclined to think we'd still be fighting some offshoot of the 18th & 19th century global colonial wars. Oh, wait..."
"After assignments in four Joint Combatant Commands and several JTFs, I can attest to the PowerPoint Ranger syndrome," wrote a reader identified as Cruise. "While PP is a good tool to convey information concisely, the battle rhythm becomes a minute-to-minute PP production cycle. As senior officers, the activity involves sparset strategic thinking but rather becomes the quest to update your piece and present of the various briefings scheduled in the day. And talk about a crisis: Your career hangs on whether your slides conform to the standard template."
"The only thing I'd add that contradicts any other comments is that this condition is not a problem just for the military," wrote another unidentified reader. "I have been military, DOD civilian and now work for another agency. At least in the military, the 'workforce' overwhelmingly tended to take care of business. The farther up the chain one got, in the regular services, the worse it got. ... Overall, I find it [over-reliance on PowerPoint] far worse in places outside the DOD. My hat's off to the colonel -- he is without question a man of personal integrity. A rare commodity in this age."
"And this underscores the other big point with current military," another unidentified reader wrote. "The colonel is right. But since he pointed out something negative about The Way Things Are Done, the solution is not to correct it, but to fire the colonel. I wholly agree with Carl F., but [I'd go] one step farther: Patton and MacArthur would be demoted or fired were they in today's military."
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Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.