I can only hope this is not the last American-manned space flight. Although it is the end of one era it leaves a window of opportunity for better design techniques and a more efficient process. Hopefully NASA will receive funding again...at some point...so we can one day see the new designs in action.
Michael, your comments about the shuttle being built with old methods brings to mind an excellent presentation I heard once from Edward Tufte, an authority on visual communication tools. He made the point that engineers make excessive use of PowerPoints to make technical presentations. He used the NASA shuttle Columbia as an example. He said that NASA executives had a fatal misunderstanding of the potential danger to Columbia because of overly simplistic PowerPoint presentations made by Boeing engineers. His viewpoint was validated by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board in a report issued in 2003. “The board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communications at NASA”.
PowerPoints are a problem for technical communication because 1) They oversimplify complex technical data, 2) They tend to reflect the biases of the presenter, and 3) Information becomes even more filtered as PowerPoints are summarized and moved up a bureaucratic hierarchy. Tufte put it simply: “Serious problems require a serious tool: written reports.”
With the plethora of visualization, digital mockup, system modeling, and 3D publishing tools available today, there are plenty of options for replacing those PowerPoints at every stage of the development process giving executives the technical understanding they need without having to master complex geometries or system-level designs. My hope is with Michael and Lauren that the space programs once again get funding and we have opportunity to see what 21st century design can deliver.
I wonder what Tufte would say about the new digital tools as a way of communciating techncial issues in meetings. He and the NASA board clearly preferred the old-fashioned, detailed techncial report, at least at that time (2003).
Perhaps one doesn't supplant the other, but potentially augments it, providing a new level of visibility into technical issues. You know that old saying, "a picture is worth a thousand words." At least, that's what all the CAD/PLM vendors keep telling me!
Powerpoint slides and technical reports are basically the same - abstracted static information. One just happens to be more voluminous than the other. Modeling and simulation changes the the use of information in a quantum way - being able to dynamically work with a fuller set of information. Those wanting to rely on 2D drawings and voluminous technical reports also probably long for the return of slide rules.
With respect to the Columbia disaster, blaming it on Powerpoint slides would certainly not be my reading of the CAIB report. The overwhelming issues were social and sensemaking ones. For an excellent analysis of these issues, see Making Sense of Blurred Images: Mindful Organizing in Mission STS-107 in Making Sense of the Organization Vol 2 (Wiley, 2009) by Prof Karl Weick of the University of Michigan.
I briefly glanced at this report. There was a lot of Monday morning quarterback and scapegoating in both the Challenger and Columbia incident. Some of it justified. Some of it not. I would probably be unpersuaded that PowerPoint was a root cause in Columbia. Again, I would recommend reading Karl Weik's take on this. Issues are almost always about social interaction and rarely about the medium used for those interactions.
Technical reports are only useful if anyone reads them. Unfortunately, it seems like reading - actual reading, not just skimming - is increasingly rare.
Written communication is a very efficient means of transmitting information, which is why it has been around for so many millenia. My experience has been that I can learn much more in an hour of reading than I can in watching an hour-long presentation. (This is not to say that presentations aren't useful for other reasons; simply that the information density is lower).
It was recently reported that 42% of college graduates never read another book after college. I'm not sure how accurate this statistic is, but if true, it could explain a lot.
People (including, unfortunately, engineer and engineering managers) seem to be increasingly less willing or able to put in the kind of effort which is required to digest written documents. Along with this comes an inability to engage with information on a critical level.
Digital tools can help us build the next generation of space vehicles, but only if the people using these tools and their managers have the thinking skills to use these tools in an intelligent way. One of the best ways to cultivate these thinking skills is to read.
Dave - I'll make a couple of comments. First, I don't know if book reading correlates with the careful use of information. I've known superb engineers who, to my knowledge, never read a book after college.
Second, people have different either capabilities or preferences for processing information. Some are auditory based, some are texted based, and some are visual based.
Third, there will be technological generational differences at the transition points, where we are at now. (I expect that when writing came out to replace the oral tradition, that the complaint was, "Can you image? These kids today can't remember the Illiad.) There very well may be a transition from reading dense reports and trying to extract and remember the salient points to the information systems presenting information based on the context of what the user has looked for in the past, the type of work he or she does, and other factors. Google is doing that today in a rudimentary fashion for searches. This is an attribute that I call "cued availability."
Professor Grieves, I respect your opinion. It is true that not everyone who is a good engineer is a reader, and certainly not everyone who reads is a good engineer. However, the habits of mind associated with reading help to develop the intellectual discipline and thinking skills needed in engineering and other fields. This is why it is so important to teach our children to read and to expose them to books at an early age.
I don't believe that I am a victim of an outdated generational view. I was born in 1979, which makes me, I suspect, significantly younger than you. But more fundamentally, it is mistaken to view the written word as simply one more technology like the record player or the eight track, which becomes obsolete when something better comes along. Every single advanced civilization in history (with the possible exception of the Incas) has made use of the written word.
I am agnostic as to whether people should be reading printed books, computer screens, e-readers, or something else. But they should be reading carefully, with attention to detail. And engineers should be reading - and writing - solid technical reports. There is simply no substitute.
Intellectual superficiality is a serious problem in our society. Many people either can't, or don't want to, think about anything very deeply. We are satisfied with easy answers, and with what seems to make sense. This has serious effects on our politics, our culture, and yes, on our engineering.
Reading may not be the cure for this, but in my opinion, it's damn good medicine.
Having been a voracious reader and a prolific writer all my life, I certainly would not dispute the value of literacy. However, the question being explored here is whether reading and writing technical reports will continue to be the most effective dissemination of information. My prediction is that the advancements in technology will provide new and better ways of conveying information.
To Beth's point earlier, a picture may be worth 1000 words. In that vein, a simulation might be worth a million words. My general point is that it is critical thinking and the communications of that thinking that is important. While historically this has been conveyed in dense technical reports, it may take a different form in the future. We need to be open to this. Because of Moore's law, we are at an unprecedented discontinuity point in information processing. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.
Professor Grieves, I am in full agreement with the main thrust of your article, which is that simulation tools will contribute significantly to the development of future space vehicles. I think we are also in agreement about the importance of critical thinking.
I have seen many cases where decision-makers are "wowed" by simulation results, without understanding the underlying assumptions and limitations. I've also seen academic work in which a model is constructed in order to show a certain result, which it inevitably does, and then the simulation is held up as proof of the result!
Simulation tools are very powerful, and this only increases the need for critical thinking. Tufte's argument seems to be that hierarchical format of many PowerPoint presentations tends to stifle critical thought. In my opinion, he presents compelling arguments for this - it should not be written off as scapegoating or Monday morning quarterbacking. However, it is still the responsibility of engineers and other personnel viewing the presentation to make full use of their own critical facilities, and to ask the difficult questions.
I think this relates to your point about social interactions. If engineers fail to ask questions or think critically about information which is presented in the form of a PowerPoint, this may be less the fault of the medium itself than the organizational culture.
I strongly doubt that Tufte (who, after all, has written books and given seminars on the visual presentation of quantitative data) would disgree that a picture is worth a thousand words. The fact that someone like Tufte is a champion of the technical report speaks volumes.
I think there is a role for both technical reports as well as PowerPoints, and, as you point out, other forms of technical communication will doubtlessly emerge as well. None of them are effective if people fail to think critically; each can be valuable provided that people do think critically. I believe that literacy is the bedrock of critical thinking, which is why I think the role of the technical report will persist for the forseeable future.
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