“In praise of clarity”
A portrait of Dr. Nicolas Bissantz
Murat Suner on Dr. Nicolas Bissantz in TRAFFIC News to-go #5
Nicolas Bissantz is annoyed. Indeed, he’s positively scathing about trends. This is a man on a mission to find the right methods so that we can all act responsibly when using a precious commodity: information.
Bissantz doesn’t hold back. In his blog, he can be seen wearing devil’s horns, putting a paper bag over his head, being shot in the chest with a trend arrow, or handling a blood-stained meat cleaver. Bissantz doesn’t shy away from drama or self-deprecation: Using dramatic images and, sometimes, words, he illustrates the handling of information – in the media, business, and everyday life.
And when he points out the role of software here, he is facing up to his own responsibility: Bissantz is the founder and CEO of a company that develops software. The questions that he raises border on the heretical: “Can computers handle what managers can’t cope with?” He believes that some in the software industry have been peddling this view for a while now. They call it business intelligence, in a deliberate nod to the CIA, whose adventurous investigation work is a staple of blockbuster movies.
Entrepreneurs and managers are meant to use software to keep an overview, weigh up opportunities and risks, take the right decisions, and avert crises. To this end, SMEs draw up reports, often mountains of them. They present figures and charts; well, not too many figures, but lots of colors.
Those who receive a report have made it: They can take decisions, and are higher up the career ladder than those who receive no reports at all. And so, goes the marketing message of these software manufacturers, they have to be treated with kid gloves. After all, ultimately the main thing is that “A-OK” – and this is what has to be conveyed: with a green traffic light, a thumbs-up, or a smiley. As a result, a colloquial expression becomes a tool for management decisions – often with lots of money, jobs, and livelihoods at stake.
Bissantz has declared war on these practices and underlying assumptions, and his blog regularly reflects this. Rather than seeing a flood of information at companies, he sees a drought: Managers thirst for information, but their reports supply just a few drops. Bissantz refuses to accept that people have only a limited capacity to take things in: “The eye and brain system constantly processes enormous quantities of information without causing us to collapse. We may need to jog our memory now and then, but that’s all.”
The financial crisis raised the question of the right balance of roles between man and machine once more. What use are the most well-designed report and the best presentation if the assumptions and expectations behind them no longer stand up? Who would be happy to read and accept that they’re sitting pretty with a return of just two percent? That is why Bissantz is constantly calling for restraint, skepticism, and moderation. Even if he has to use immoderate means to get his message across.
Only those who know the limits of the computer can trust it within these limits. World chess champion Garry Kasparov was beaten by a machine because he overestimated it: In 1996, he lost to Deep Blue, IBM’s famous chess computer, which even then was able to calculate 126 million moves per second. Kasparov failed to bear in mind that such a powerful computer could overlook the option of forcing its opponent into a stalemate.
Allocating roles differently
Perhaps what Bissantz means is: Instead of gearing our minds toward computers, we should gear computers toward our minds. Bissantz established his company in the year of Kasparov’s defeat. Before that, he studied business administration in Trier, Munich, and Nuremberg, and did his PhD under Peter Mertens, the pioneer of business informatics. The latter’s fondness for interdisciplinary work and thinking particularly rubbed off on him: Several decades ago, Mertens recognized the importance of information and communication technology to business, and set about bringing informatics and economics together. This happens every day at Bissantz & Company – in an allocation of roles that is not exactly typical of the industry: Bissantz is adamant that software should not be made by programmers. All that matters is the needs of managers; and they are, quite rightly, relative novices at handling computers. Setting up a team that accepts this approach took several years of work. Today, Bissantz has around 80 employees; Bissantz software is used by prominent companies such as Bayer, Leica, Nordsee, Porsche and others that conduct their business seriously and are not simply driven by quarterly results.
After the crisis, many were left feeling that the business world was living in a parallel universe that was nothing like their own. Those on the outside struggle to see through the complex interrelationships and are troubled by the smooth demeanor of many of its protagonists, their aura of untouchability, and the oppressive coolness of their legal rhetoric. Not to mention the seemingly otherworldly technical terminology that they hide behind. Nicolas Bissantz understands jargon, but doesn’t talk it – he prefers plain speaking. Aura: yes. Untouchability: no. In his blog, he has harsh words for the information culture, his own industry, and its products, for example when he sees paper making a comeback (while many are keen to herald its demise) and reminds the newspapers of their advantages over the Internet.
Competition as an opportunity
The print media often drive Bissantz up the wall. “The print media are wasting their opportunity to put things across. A daily newspaper has half a square meter of space per double-page spread to do something big. As a software guy, undeveloped information space like that makes me green with envy.” He regards the development of the print media in the past 25 years, i.e. the period in which the sphere of influence of personalized computer technology has reached our daily lives, as a capitulation before a medium that still doesn’t understand itself. One example is The Wall Street Journal Europe. “The relaunch has lots of elements of pandering to its supposedly dumb readers. For instance, what’s the point of all those photos that have nothing to do with the stories? That’s a real shame; the Journal was always my role model for good data graphics.” The impact that a program like PowerPoint, which has now replaced the overhead projector and its handwritten transparencies even in elementary schools, is having on data graphics in the print sector is also alarming. Handwritten transparencies required creativity, and you learned something about your classmates – who could draw, who still had childlike handwriting, who could speak well without notes.
At any rate, the program is detrimental to speaking skills: It tempts speakers to read even a simple, “Hello” from their PowerPoint slide. One creative impact, attributable to the creativity of the digital bohemian scene, is the revival of TheatreSports through the “PowerPoint karaoke” format. Zentrale Intelligenz Agentur – a collective of writers and artists also named with the CIA in mind – builds its highly entertaining evenings around improvisations based on strange presentations on the Internet.
Nicolas Bissantz is clearly someone whose creativity is fired up when he sees something wrong. His thinking recalls that of people like Herbert von Karajan, who would never have surrendered to a new recording medium and the associated techniques as a musician. He preferred to learn to become the first to master the new media: Karajan recorded EMI’s first vinyl release in 1951 and Deutsche Grammophon’s first CD in 1980, and was probably the first conductor to grasp that this was not just about a data transfer from analog to digital, but about reinterpretation; about knowing and using the strengths and weaknesses of the different media. Therefore, in June, Nicolas Bissantz is taking the step from blogger to columnist at TRAFFIC News to-go, printed on 60 g/m2 paper in web offset and distributed among people by hand. We look forward to some trenchant articles.
This portrait appeared in TRAFFIC News to-go #5 on April 28, 2010.