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May we have your attention, please?

Ubiquity, Volume 2001 Issue June, June 1 - June 30, 2001 | BY Thomas H. Davenport 


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Thomas H. Davenport describes how the information explosion affects business and suggests ways to rise above the daily din. Davenport is director of the Accenture Institute for Strategic Change in Cambridge, a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Babson College, and a widely published author on the use of information technology in business.

UBIQUITY: Your new book, which you co-authored with John C. Beck, is "The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business." Why is it an "attention" economy and how does it act as a new currency of business?

THOMAS H. DAVENPORT: We define attention as focused mental engagement on a particular message or piece of information, and we think attention has become a currency because people just don't have very much of it to spend anymore. Attention is a scarce resource, and as such is valuable and getting more valuable all the time. And, like any other currency, you can use it to do useful things, and things of great value.

UBIQUITY: One famous movie star was famous for her refusal to have her attention be distracted. Greta Garbo.

DAVENPORT: "I want to be alone!"

UBIQUITY: Is wanting to be alone a lost battle and a hopeless war?

DAVENPORT: Well, it's certainly not a very good idea if you want to be a famous movie star, but beyond that I think it's become very difficult for any of us to withhold our attention from the constant bombardment of interruptions. But, difficult or not, it's probably not a good idea for any of us who are knowledge workers, because if you're a knowledge worker then pretty much all you have to offer the world is your attention. So another way of defining "attention" is as some multiple of your time and your brain cells, and if you're not paying any attention to what's going on in your organization or in your own life, you're probably not doing much good for anybody.

UBIQUITY: What kind of a strategy makes sense from the individual's point of view.

DAVENPORT: Well, individuals are both suppliers of information and consumers of information, so from an attention standpoint they have to know how to get attention for the information they supply or provide, and from the consumer side they also need to think about how to allocate their own attention effectively. In our book we talk about both sides of that equation: How you can get attention for the information you're providing and also how you can allocate your own attention effectively.

UBIQUITY: What kinds of things did you come up with?

DAVENPORT: One thing we came up with is the importance of personalization. In one study, we analyzed the messages that more than 100 people received the previous day, to find out what really got their attention, and we discovered that the characteristic most commonly associated with getting a lot of attention had to do the message being personalized.

UBIQUITY: Conclusion?

DAVENPORT: Stop sending those big group distribution e-mails. That's the first thing. The second thing is making your communications concise and easy to digest. The third is being emotional or evocative of emotion -- even negative emotion seems to get people's attention. And the fourth is to seen as a trustworthy source of information. You may not be able to affect the fourth one very well if you're not a trustworthy person, but the first three, you can do a lot about.

UBIQUITY: Those items address the information-producer side of the equation. What about the other side?

DAVENPORT: We devoted a lot of attention in this book to the issue of measurement, because you can't manage your attention effectively if you don't have some sense of where it is going. So we developed the tool -- actually my co-author did more of the work on this -- called the AttentionScape, which is a subjective and voluntary measure of where your attention is going over a particular time period. The details are described on the book's Web site at

UBIQUITY: Let's imagine some particular type of reader of the book. What would, let's say, a professor need to know? What would she or he need to learn from "The Attention Economy"?

DAVENPORT: A professor is in the business of providing information, yet an unfortunate fact is that we do very little to show teachers how to get the attention and keep the attention of students. So there are certainly messages in this book about some of the things you could do to make students pay more attention to what you're talking about. On the research side, one of the great problems in the academic research business is that lots of stuff gets created but not very much of it gets attended to. It wasn't our primary purpose to write for professors but I think you could learn a lot from the book about how your research could be made more attention-getting and hence more likely to have an impact on the world.

UBIQUITY: One of the ways some people -- for example, TV broadcasters -- use to get attention is to "turn up the volume." For example, let's think of the shouting match variety of news chat programs. Or stock market programs where the participants scream at each other and over each others' voices. Do you think that's a good way of getting attention?

DAVENPORT: It's probably a pretty good way of getting attention initially, but not a very good way of keeping it over time. We haven't done any research on this, but my guess is that initially seeing people shout and rant and rave makes you look in that direction, but that over time it becomes a bit tiresome. Shouting works only for a very brief period, which is why you should use it judiciously.

UBIQUITY: Then do you think the Public TV approaches to news and analysis would have a better long-term pay-off? Commercial TV seems to have a much bigger audience.

DAVENPORT: It's an interesting question. Why would news on commercial TV do better than Public TV in terms of its ability to attract attention? I'd say there are a variety of factors. One is that commercial television tends to appeal to people with shorter attention spans -- and that seems to be the bulk of the public. As a result, the typical news segment gets smaller and smaller, and that seems to be what people respond to. Two, commercial television programs tend to have bigger budgets and can dispatch cameras to the scene, which is always more attention-getting than mere "talking heads."

UBIQUITY: Why has journalistic discourse gotten more sensational, louder, more hysterical?

DAVENPORT: Because we're in an environment where it's harder and harder to get people's attention, so information-distributors have to resort to more attention-getting devices. The same thing applies to the use of sex in the media, because sex is a very reliable attention-getter for obvious, evolutionary reasons. People point to the ever-increasing appearance of sex in advertising and in TV content and say that the morals of the society are declining, but a more likely explanation is it's just increasingly hard to get people's attention and sex does that very well.

UBIQUITY: Speaking of sex and the news, are you aware of the Canadian Naked News program?

DAVENPORT: Yes. I didn't know it was Canadian, but they had an article on it in the "Boston Globe" a little while ago, and I must confess I did go to that site for a few minutes. It holds your attention pretty well for awhile, I'd say.

UBIQUITY: How long? How many minutes?

DAVENPORT: You'll have to check with my Internet Service Provider on that.

UBIQUITY: One of the points you've made is that the calls on people's attention have increased in correspondence with the ever-expanding increases in the amount of information generated.

DAVENPORT: That's right. I saw a statistic from a U.C. Berkeley study saying that it took us 300,000 years to generate an amount of information and will take only the next 2.5 years to get the same amount.

UBIQUITY: That's quite a statistic. But with regard to the information explosion, does it really matter -- after a fairly low threshold - just how bad the problem gets? By analogy, if you're lost on a rowboat in the middle of Lake Michigan, you're probably as bad off as if you're lost on a rowboat in the middle of the Mediterranean or lost in a rowboat in the middle of the Atlantic.

DAVENPORT: From the point of view of the information consumer that is correct, but when you're acting as an information provider then the greater the imbalance of information to attention, the worse your problem gets. There are now an estimated two billion Web sites, and some estimates, like the University of California's, go up into the hundreds of billions. Yet the average person looks at just 10 unique sites per month, so if you're an information provider it's going to take an awfully long time for people to chew through those billions to see the one that you've created.

UBIQUITY: What has surprised you most from your study?

DAVENPORT: A couple of things. The first is the degree to which general interest in the topic has increased over just the last couple of years, and the second is that the level of interest hasn't been matched by the same level of action. There aren't a whole lot of policies around telling executives how to deal with the information environments within their organizations. And there aren't a lot of efforts to protect people from the kind of onslaught of junk that comes at them throughout the workday. If attention is the resource that knowledge workers offer to their organizations in the world, you'd think that corporations would be a little more interested in managing it than they have been thus far.

UBIQUITY: So then let's say that companies do become convinced that they need to manage that problem. What marching orders could you give them? How would they manage it?

DAVENPORT: Well, step one would be do some measurements to get some sense of the scope of the problem, and we try to provide some tools for that in the book. And we talk about such tools as brain wave monitoring and eyeball monitoring. The second step would be the creation of policies for conserving a little bit of the organization's valuable attention, in order to put a limit on the sort of arms races around attention that a lot of organizations have. For example, they might want to ban the use of streaming video and internal PowerPoint presentations.


DAVENPORT: Because they spend a huge amount of time getting each other's attention that might be better spent elsewhere. If I were the CEO, I'd want my own information to be the most attention-getting, so I'd try to eliminate some of my internal competitors in some way. But then the third thing I would do is think about technology -- not so much technology for getting attention, which, as I said, often leads to unproductive arms races -- but technology for alternative purposes like structuring, monitoring and protecting attention, and so on.

UBIQUITY: Would you be tempted to create a policy banning personal chat among employees?

DAVENPORT: I would certainly consider doing it for chat outside of the organization during the so-called workday. It gets tricky, of course, because knowledge workers increasingly are doing work at home and doing home stuff at work, but I would want to have a pretty good sense that the brain cells of my knowledge workers were engaged in work-related activity for a good proportion of the workday. So, certainly if I looked at my Internet statistics and saw a whole lot of activity going to external chat, I might well do it.

UBIQUITY: Let's finish by paying attention to how own brain cells manage to cope in the Attention Economy.

DAVENPORT: Well, I don't think that I'm that atypical. In the past year I've probably acquired 100 books that I haven't been able to read yet, and I subscribe to lots of magazines that tend to pile up on my credenza because I don't really have time to even look at them to see whether there's something in them that I should read. The really depressing thing is of course that I'm supposed to be a relatively reflective person, since it's my job to do research and think and write and so on. So, I figure if I can't do, it must be much worse for a lot of other people. The awful truth is that I'm not as good as I ought to be in managing my attention resources. Sure, I'm pretty disciplined about how I use the Internet and e-mail and so on, but I under-invest in my own personal information environment. I don't create enough different folders for information, and I don't force myself to deal with a piece of information only once. So, I have a lot of the same bad habits of a lot of the people that I'm writing about.

UBIQUITY: Then in the spirit of "Physician, heal thyself!" have you issued marching orders to thyself?

DAVENPORT: There are some things that I've done. For example, after my partner and I learned from our research that non-personalized group-based e-mails are not very effective, I generally stopped sending them. Whenever possible, I customize the basic message to each individual, and add a little paragraph on a personal note: the kind of note that says congratulations on your daughter's wedding and sorry your dog is sick and that sort of thing. And I've found that I get a lot more responses than I did out of these group things that I used to send. So, that's probably the single most important habit I've developed.

UBIQUITY: Any other behavior changes?

DAVENPORT: Yes. In trying to write this book we felt a need to make it attention-getting, so we would avoid being charged for ignoring our own recommendations. And that's been a very positive change. Some of my other books were not renowned for their interesting formats or chatty style or use of stories and so on. They got me tenure at a couple of universities, but they didn't get much attention. Tenure is nice but attention is better: The kind of attention you give to things you're doing and the kind of attention people are coaxed into giving to your ideas. Attention is the new currency of business and of the world itself.

The "Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business," by Thomas H. Davenport and John C. Beck, is now available in bookstores and through online book retailers such as Amazon:


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