Excel - That is the powerpoint of it: Read Shubhranshu Singh's take on how Excel forever changed business and marketing

"I believe Excel is the single most transforming element of what has made modern business what it is. It was like a cannon to the ramparts of feudal management. It blew old style marketing and creative industries to bits," writes Shubhranshu Singh in his Storyboard18 column Simply Speaking.

By  Shubhranshu SinghMay 14, 2024 9:28 AM
Excel - That is the powerpoint of it: Read Shubhranshu Singh's take on how Excel forever changed business and marketing
Excel created a vehicle for defining value. It made the old corps tetchy. But they had no option but to lump it. Any large corporation is a confederacy of noncooperative parts. The excel yoke put everyone in one line, writes Shubhranshu Singh.

If capitalism had its version of Agitprop, its two main heroes would be PowerPoint and Excel.

They would be celebrated as tools that revolutionised and transformed business management. Without a doubt, they have had a massive impact. Whether as carriers of prior information, facilitators of analysis or creators of meta thinking, they established themselves as the ‘always on’ tools especially for those who were set to climb the ladder fast.

This impact helped create, sustain and grow the mystique of the business mandarin. In myriad ways, they were invaluable to the ‘behind-the-curtain’ players who formed the establishment glue, the grout in the interdepartmental tiles as also to those who did customer facing razzle dazzle. In terms of packaging and distribution - PowerPoint and Excel came to hold sway.

But, are they fit for purpose and has this impact only been positive?

PowerPoint is more fundamentally flawed. It is a poor tool and has made both medium and message shrink. Intrinsically, it isn’t suited for what it is meant to accomplish in terms of clear, engaging, sharp communication. Sharp imagery, a few bullet points and a narrative often trumps thorough analysis and case supporting documentation. It is used indiscriminately for big bold ideas as well as the minutiae. It only follows a sequential, linear narrative.

Could a general plan battle with PowerPoint inputs? Could an advocate convincingly argue with it in a court of law? Is it telescopic or microscopic in its net effect?

When done differently, it often gives rise to another issue, namely over stuffed presentations. But saying “apologies for a busy slide” is all it takes to brush away the illegible density.

I have seen multiple slides in one or beastly innovations such as one slide with multiple links that go to other slides only to return to the nominal single slide.

The very ephemeral nature of such an arrayed display - boring or bedazzling - as it may be means that each slide appears for a few seconds before a puzzled, distracted or engaged audience. The etiquette of posing questions together at the end means the ‘peak end effect’ inevitably takes hold. Often, all you remember is the high point and the conclusion.

The celebration of PowerPoint is however a symptom and not the cause.

Reductive, shorthand summarisation has become the preferred mode for collective discussions. There is not much bandwidth for detailing. An impactful image becomes a substitute for a cogent argument rather than a support for it. I am all for visually attractive, clutter breaking and compelling imagery but must the horse ride the man? Truly, does a picture say more than a thousand words? When the need for quantitative substantiation is felt, numbers march into the cramped space and infographics take pride of place. But it’s self-selection of data that happens most of all. People choose to see what they want to see.

PowerPoint is a great tool for advocacy but not critical analysis.

The recipe has become more important than the dish.

There is also the futility of the pre read. PowerPoints are often circulated prior to meetings and distributed far and wide. Hence there is an urge to be armed with additional content to drive specific agendas during meetings.

A simple litmus test is whether a presentation is self-explanatory without the presenter. I am not disputing the critical role of the narrative, but every presenter wants attention and that leads to message mutation.

The detailing must be to a level of sufficiency. Brevity is the soul of the nitwit.

If you make PowerPoint presentation an end rather than the means, you will end up making a puréed mess of your ideas, and you have no choice in the matter.

Let me now deal with Excel. I believe Excel is the single most transforming element of what has made modern business what it is. It was like a cannon to the ramparts of feudal management. It blew old style marketing and creative industries to bits.

It all started with the advent of the spreadsheet. This came in the early 1980s shortly after the introduction and widespread adoption of the IBM PC: VisiCalc, followed by Lotus 1-2-3, and then, of course, Microsoft Excel as a part of MS Office.

Working a spreadsheet made business a malleable reality. It visually gave birth to the bottom line. Change the numbers up and the bottom line changed from red to green. Whereas real business was dealing with frictional ground realities, excel made every scenario a gamed outcome. If it could be on excel, what prevented it from being real on ground?

‘Go to market’ strategy became subservient to excel.

Old style business began to look sloppy, wasteful and plain.

‘Excel men’ derived power from mathematical certainty whereas creative business was messy, loud and chaotic in comparison.

Power shifted towards formality and reserve. Men became cooler than the air conditioning. You counted only if you could be counted to deliver the numbers in the cells.

Financial engineering became the domain of the high-flying manager. Convening rights and allocation of resources got determined via outcomes from the spreadsheet. Excel made effects and countereffects easy to visualise and all fantasies seemed within grasp.

A patina of seriousness was acquired by the excel man. He was seen as wise and careful -someone sober, clinical, precise, and forever ready. He held the cards and didn’t need to show his hand.

This ex parte advisory had a lugubrious air, implied authority and was blessed with Delphic certainty. It was inherently at conflict with the hopeful, familial charters of old business.

Excel created a vehicle for defining value. It made the old corps tetchy. But they had no option but to lump it. Any large corporation is a confederacy of noncooperative parts. The excel yoke put everyone in one line.

For all its intentionality, the ‘excel projection’ gave its controllers a certain degree of ritual deniability. After all they just ran the numbers. If the targets were not achieved, the line managers and operators were to be held accountable.

With excel power, even the sub-rosa parts of business became a sound and light show - dynamic, dramatic and dangerous. The consumer reality became subservient to higher order lines like technology, supply and cost.

Marketing and management now suddenly demanded a different type of temperament. Without the excel seal of approval you were only a poet.

By the 90s, the old order was being swept away as the millennium melted away into a sunset. Absolute novices, powered with the right to analyse and manipulate numbers—took over unassailable, solid, and essential brands.

It was a revolution: new against old, analytical stars against storytellers, financial visionaries against business as usual. True or not, that’s how it was framed. Brand building, which used to be an institutionalised, specialized, creative, viscous activity—became everyone’s playing field.

He who had the excel sheet controlled the dream. Financing something, anything, became the central economic activity.

Whilst the marketing culture at large was being dumbed down, the excel culture was getting smarter, more competitive, oppressive and, adamant in its pursuit of the ‘excel outcomes’.

From being the core of a business, the brand became a great abstraction. Businesses could be broken up, sold in parts, merged and dissolved.

A page of PowerPoint and a sheet of excel was all that mattered.

Shubhranshu Singh is VP and CMO, Tata Motors CVBU. He writes Simply Speaking, a special column on Storyboard18. Views expressed are personal.

First Published on May 14, 2024 9:24 AM

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