Defense IT

Can Ash Carter change DOD's PowerPoint culture?

New Defense Secretary Ash Carter created a bit of a stir recently when he took on an all-too familiar tool—and target—within the Defense Department: PowerPoint.

Meeting with a group of top commanders in Kuwait Feb. 22, Carter told them to forget about using PowerPoint presentations in a move intended to encourage them to think more about the topics at hand—in this case the threat of ISIS, the Washington Post reported.

The news no doubt drew smiles, if not outright cheers, around DOD, but before anyone gets ready for life without bullet lists, Carter’s eviction of PowerPoint from his meeting isn’t going to become DOD policy. Slideshows will always be with us. But it does highlight what has been an ongoing struggle over PowerPoint’s place in military meetings, reports and conferences—whether the department relies too much on those presentations and whether that overreliance hurts operations more than helps them.

Done right, PowerPoint and its arrays of tools can be an effective way to get images and information onto a screen to augment—but not, its proponents will point out, replace—a speech or presentation. The problem seems to be when it’s done rote, producing an endless series of dull presentations that impart little or no insight. This is a symptom at least partly caused by the vast number of slideshows that have to be produced.

Back in 2010, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then in charge U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, famously called out PowerPoint, telling the New York Times, “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control. Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.”

Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, then the Joint Forces commander, echoed that sentiment, saying, “PowerPoint makes us stupid.”

Later that year, an Army Reserve colonel serving in Afghanistan was fired after writing a caustic column, titled “PowerPoints ‘R’ Us,” that criticized all the time spent producing slideshows for “cognitively challenged generals.” Considering that last part, it probably wasn’t the criticism of PowerPoint that got him fired, but his complaint about an overreliance on the program has been a common one for years.

And Carter, McChrystal and others have wondered whether overuse has blunted the effectiveness of commanders and other military leaders.

Pascal Emmanuel Gobry, writing for The Week, goes so far to argue that an excess of PowerPoint presentations is one sign that DOD, in the absence of any competitor as the world’s foremost military power, is becoming a calcified bureaucracy. In Forbes, Gobry argues that the Pentagon should ban PowerPoint altogether.

The proliferation of PowerPoint can also cut both ways, leading to presentations and reports that aren’t made. A recently released study by two Army War College professors about how the abundant red tape of required forms, reports and other tasks was eroding trust in the service, noted that encounters with the enemy in Afghanistan and Iraq would sometimes go unreported because those reports required a PowerPoint presentation. Some officers decided the presentation “was useless ... they didn't want to go through the hassle," so they didn’t report the incident, according to the authors.

Carter could be on to something. Although it’s unrealistic to think that slideshow presentations—so deeply ingrained in military culture—are going to disappear, or even diminish much, some selective surgery to remove them from certain situations could at least help, and, perhaps more important, not hurt.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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