Spreadsheet Culture vs. Deck Culture

In the past 3 years I've worked in two incredibly different environments - one that's almost exclusively data-oriented, filled with data scientist and engineers; another that's almost entirely language- and visually-driven, filled with strategists and writers and creatives.

Both approaches have their benefits - and both are reflective of the type of work the company produced: analytical software in the first case, creative marketing in the second. But I can't help but think that each might have swung a bit too far to one side of the pendulum and is missing out by not having a cultural respect for the others' craft of choice. I've certainly learned tons from working in both kinds of organizations, but not everyone has benefitted from this same kind of cross-pollination.

It strikes me that the most common manifestation of this divide in culture is the relative dexterity and comfort that the two organizations have with two very specific types of software applications: spreadsheets and presentations (decks, in the vernacular).

At my former company, we lived and died in spreadsheets. We constantly analyzed data in Excel in order to complete our day-to-day work, and almost everyone in the company was expected to know how to work with large amounts of data in Pivot Tables, to construct Vlookup functions, and more. But we also used spreadsheets to communicate - the most common form of presentation involved a Google Sheet on screen in a room; the most common form of collaboration involved sharing one of these documents. It was a dominant interaction pattern within the company.

In the agency world, the weapon of choice is the presentation - and our bar is not the corporate powerpoints full of text and starbursts. Presentations are generally expected to be fully-formed stories and visually immersive documents. Whether designed for print or screen, there is an expectation that these documents look beautiful and tell a compelling story. There is respect for this craft within the organization, and ideas often judged by how well they are expressed in this medium. There is a great deal of effort spent on fit and finish.

There are positives and negatives to each approach. Spreadsheet culture places a premium on the gathering of content, its validity, cleanliness and structure. It's focused on find the answers - communicating the answers to another audience is often an afterthought. It's easy here to find an incredible solution, only to have it fall on deaf ears.

Deck culture focuses on delivering the information in an appealing manner, sometimes exchanging the value of additional investigation or analysis. It's very possible in this mode to create a stunning and compelling story that answers the wrong question, or answers the right question incorrectly.

I've learned a lot from each culture - and no matter which side of the spectrum your company falls on, I think there's value in embracing the mode of communication that works best. But if you can, try to learn the tools of trade for both sides - decks and sheets - together they can do beautiful things.