What would you say is the preferred tool or mechanism for creating, sharing, and socializing information in your organization that is used to generate discussion and ultimately, decisions?
While many of us (sadly) would probably default to 'Email' as the technology of choice, even heavy email cultures rely on 'real' office productivity applications for work products and communicating information. Excel and PowerPoint, assuredly, are two of the most common applications in use across organizations of all types. But which one of these two applications tends to dominate how business information and data are documented and shared can reveal plenty about how decisions are made and what kind of organizational culture prevails.
Check the below excerpt from a recent piece on Digitopoly, a review of research into how competing teams at NASA (Team PowerPoint and Team Excel), created and shared data and information on robot technology used for experiments on space projects:
On Team Excel, the robot has a number of instruments but separate teams manage and have property rights over those instruments. The structure is hierarchical and the various assignments the instruments are given are mapped out in Excel. By contrast on Team PowerPoint, no one team owns an instrument. Instead, all decisions regarding, say, where to position the robot are made collectively in a meeting. The meetings are centered around PowerPoint presentations that focus on qualitative trade-offs from making one decision rather than another. Then decisions are taken using a consensus approach — literally checking if everyone is “happy.”
What is fascinating about this is that the type of data collected by each team is very different. On Team Excel where each instrument is controlled and specialised to its task, the data from them is very complete and comprehensive on that specific thing — say, light readings, infrared etc. On Team PowerPoint, there are big data gaps for each instrument but there appear to be more comprehensive deep analyses of particular phenomenon where all of the instruments can oriented towards the measurement of a common thing. This is a classic trade-off between specialised knowledge and deep knowledge. What is extraordinary is that they bake the trade-off into their organisational structure and also decision-making tools — literally emphasizing different apps in Microsoft Office.
We probably don't consciously think too much about how the technology and tools choices we make can effect how the organization actually functions, what particular approaches and skills tend to dominate, and even what gets recognized and rewarded. In the example from the Digitopoly piece, an argument is made that both of these approaches, Team Excel with its focus on individual accountability and control, and Team PowerPoint that relied much more on shared accountability and the 'big picture', are needed and have value.
Where we get into trouble, I think, is when one type of technology, say PowerPoint, becomes dominant or the de facto method in an organization for communicating information and as a decision support tool. It is by its nature, shallow, and it assumes that viewers and readers understand the details and deeper contexts about the subject matter that is typically just about impossible to convey in a slide deck.
Similar arguments can be made on cultures where 95% of communication is over email, or tied up in impossibly complex Excel workbooks.
We often choose the easy or expected technology solution out of habit, or out of a kind of cultural allegiance. It is fascinating how these technology choices can impact much more than we think.
Team Excel. Team PowerPoint. That really shouldn't be the choice. Team 'Right tool for the job' is. Choose wisely.
Have a great week!