Professor Thomas H. Davenport is well known for his superb summaries of best practices in knowledge management. In The Attention Economy, he and co-author, Professor John C. Beck, outline the work that others are doing in measuring how attention is gained, and provide a prototype measurement device for attention. The book modestly advances our knowledge of this subject. The book's weakness is that it misdefines the key issue, which should be "What Should We Be Paying Attention to in Business?"
The authors feel that the most pressing problem today is "not enough attention to meet the information demands of business and society." They argue that everything except human attention is plentiful and cheap. They think of attention as "human bandwidth." As a result, they suggest that like all scarce resources, attention is a "currency." In support of these observations, the authors note that 71 percent of white collar workers feel "info stress." They also argue that companies have "organizational ADD."
The most interesting part of the book is the proposed measurement model. There are three continuums involved: one is from aversive to attractive, a second is from captive to voluntary, and a third is from front-of-mind to back-of-mind. The authors provide some examples of how to use this as a measurement tool, and prescribe some potential solutions for what they find in the examples. I thought that the weakness of this approach is that without experimental experience and testing, one will probably be wrong in prescribing from a new measurement tool. In that sense, the writing here exceeds the scope of the research the authors have done. However, I am glad they are sharing their prototype.
Of existing research, you will get a quick look at psychobiology, the impact of technology on solving or making the problem worse, lessons from advertising, Web issues (especially e-mail, which they mention incessantly), leadership effects, strategy effects, and organizational structure as it affects attention.
Basically, their argument is that less is more in most situations. Their goal is to create a world where technology enhances attention, you have control over sending and receiving information, you can escape information, and institutions (like companies and schools) make information more relevant for you. In so doing, they would like to see information providers focus on quality, not quantity.
"In the end, the greatest prize for being able to capture attention will be the freedom to avoid it."
Being familiar with the literature in this area, I found only the measurement model to be new. If you have read widely, you can focus on just that part of the book.
My own sense is that measuring attention is less important than measuring what people use information for. Are they working on the right things, with the right people and tools, and in the best possible way? I also suspect that attention does need to be somewhat open. You do not know what you do not know, nor do I. Openness is clearly valuable to creativity and innovation. Hopefully, it will remain so.
I was also struck that not enough attention was paid to giving people more tools for handling information that would already work. But this is a theoretical book, rather than a practical one. If you want to know more about how to turn information into influence, I suggest you read Robert Cialdini's classic, Influence.
Basically, this subject is only of interest because voice mail and e-mail are being overused. That source of stress is fairly unimportant though, because little of importance comes from either source. They just happen to waste time. Good manners and more consideration would solve most of those problems. For most companies, a little attention to suggesting what should be done in both areas would solve much of the stress described here.
I think we do need to do more work on helping people to appreciate their perceptual weaknesses. Like many management books, this one focuses more on "doing things to people" rather than helping people do things for themselves better. I hope that future work in this area will be more practical for the individual.
My experience has been is that if people have good information, almost everyone decides and acts in the same way. The poorest sources of such information are regular financial reports in companies. As a result, Professor Kaplan's work with the Balanced Scorecard, as described lately in The Strategy-Focused Organization, is a area to focus on if you are concerned about organizational ADD.
The relatively new book, Simplicity, by Bill Jensen is also a good source of ideas for how to overcome many of these issues.
After you think about this issue, I suggest that you focus your organization on what are the three things you need to do better than anyone else. Then be sure that everyone understands what information needs to be addressed. Give them lots of freedom to wallow in the information anyway they like. A regimented approach will help with execution, but limit your choices.
Expand your mind's control over what you focus on, to avoid the bad habits that stall progress!