I Saw It On a Screen -- So It Must Be True!: Page 2

In the supposedly tech-savvy 21st century, one hopes that people would be skeptical of anything a computer produces. But put something on a screen...
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Then there is the spreadsheet. This humble tool has brought down mighty companies and misdirected governments. If I work something out on the back of a napkin everyone wants to query how I got the result, but have the number pop out of a spreadsheet and it’s gospel. The first rule of business cases is to deliver them in spreadsheet format with the dodgy assumptions buried in a cell formula on page five.

The COBOL code that calculates a single customer’s discount is subject to rigorous testing by experts. The code that calculates the company’s profitability for the year is written in Excel by a tired accountant one evening and tested by the same person the next morning...sometimes.

I know of a company that spent two billion dollars on another company based on the fact that they could conduct business with better profit margins than anyone else in the industry. After two years, an auditor (investigating on behalf of the Board to work out why it didn’t seem to be working after acquisition) discovered that the spreadsheet that reported the profit divided by the same factor in two different cell formulae. Margins weren’t 5%: they were 2.5%. Due diligence at purchase missed it.

In fact it is not just computers: it seems to be any screen. Don’t get me started on what documentaries and news media get away with that wouldn’t wash in a book or newspaper. Moving animations of medications hit the spot on curiously neutered see-through bodies. Movies tell of kids using a laptop hacking the Pentagon to remotely control missiles. News reports show smiling soldiers.

Something about illuminated information paralyses the mental faculties. Whether it is television, demo, movie, spreadsheet, Web site or presentation, be doubly on your guard for what Clive James once called “the ancient Japanese art of bullshido.”

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