How Pfizer's Anti-Powerpoint Jihad Got Its Mojo Back

Last Updated May 16, 2011 10:29 AM EDT

There was a delightful case study in the Financial Times last week that said employees at Pfizer (PFE) spent a mind-boggling 30 percent of their time fiddling with PowerPoint presentations -- and that an effort to outsource the grunt work improved everyone's efficiency.

Everyone knows that Powerpoint is the soul-sapping enemy of productivity. This is the software that helped crash the space shuttle Columbia in 2003 because its presentation options militate in favor of burying some data in order to make the whole presentation more navigable.

At Pfizer, one cubicle-dweller staged a remarkable -- and successful -- jihad against PowerPoint, the FT reported:

In 2005, Jordan Cohen, a mid-level manager at the global pharmaceuticals company Pfizer, realised that a lot of skilled employee time was in effect "wasted" on routine tasks such as using Excel and PowerPoint and doing basic research.
... First, he did a simple test by asking 12 colleagues to track how they spent their time by using the Task function in Microsoft Office. With the data from this test â€"- which suggested that up to 30 per cent of their time was spent on routine tasks â€"- he convinced his immediate boss to
dedicate resources to the project but still kept it very quiet.
It's not a surprise that Pfizer employees spend too much time giving each other slideshows rather than doing actual productive work, of course. But it is a surprise that Cohen's secret project was eventually adopted by management and rolled out company-wide.

If you look at how many dollars in revenues Pfizer earned from every $1 it invested in sales, general and administrative tasks -- the company's biggest single quarterly expense, and certainly the budget line that pays for PowerPoint -- it turns out that since 2005 Pfizer has gotten more efficient and productive at generating sales:


(Source: SEC filings.)
The company got $3.02 for every dollar spent on PowerPoint (and other activities) in 2005. Last year it got $3.46 -- a 15 percent improvement since 2005.

Of course, the company launched several new drugs and merged with Wyeth in this timeframe, so we can't say that Cohen's insurgency against PowerPoint is solely responsible for Pfizer's improvement. (And more recent results show there may be limits to just how efficient a very large drug company can become.) But it's a nice coincidence.

It also bolsters the argument that the more time your employees spend creating slideshows, the less time they're spending making products you can actually sell, or serving clients and customers.

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Image by Flickr user cogdogblog and Gareth Saunders, CC.