Attention: The New Business Currency

Sep 13, 2001

Eva Marer

If a snake suddenly appeared in your conference room, rest assured that your spellbinding presentation would be history: every ounce of attention in the room would zero in on the snake.

This is an extreme example of a hot concept in business these days: human attention is a non-renewable resource that trumps knowledge and capital in determining business success. Attention is more than awareness: it's the ability to bring items into focus and then act on them (or choose not to act).

The gurus of the movement to focus attention on attention are Thomas H. Davenport and John C. Beck, senior research fellows at the Accenture Institute for Strategic Change in Cambridge, Mass. In their new book, "The Attention Economy" (HBS Press, 2001), the authors argue that, in a post-industrial society, attention is the real currency of business and individuals. They write:

"What is it that makes the economy hum, but is not growing? What's the limiting factor behind all those Web pages, business plans, strategies, books and articles, marketing initiatives, partnerships and alliances, and expansion initiatives? An attentive human mind...It's easy to start a business, to get access to customers and markets, to develop a strategy, to put up a Web site, to design ads and commercials... Telecommunications bandwidth is not a problem, but human bandwidth is."

While human attention is limited, demands on it are only increasing, implying that the ability to manage attention -- inside and outside the company firewall -- will become critical. The sheer volume of information has increased. According to unpublished studies by Ferris Research and Lotus Notes cited in the book, the average white-collar worker typically spends two hours per day on e-mail alone. Another study by Reuters Business Information found that 43% of managers believed that important decisions are being delayed by too much information.

In these tough times, as many firms have become leaner with fewer people around to do the same amount of work, attention has become even scarcer. Where rationalization may once have contributed to productivity, it may paradoxically slash productivity in an attention economy. The authors don't mince words: "Understanding and managing attention is now the single most important determinant of business success."

A Lesson In Attention

Wondering whether anyone's reading your e-mails?

Factors Considered in Explaining Attention-Getting Messages (From "The Attention Economy," copyright 2001 Accenture)

The message source was...
1. trustworthy or respected.
2. influential or powerful (i.e., socially or politically or both).
3. charismatic or appealing.

The message context was...
4. personalized (i.e. directed to and about me).
5. about a group I belong to or have interest in.
6. related to a question or an issue I was concerned about.

The message's content was...
7. concise, direct, or story-like in structure.
8. engaging to my senses (i.e., eye, ear, touch).
9. new, unusual or unique.

The recipient was...
10. emotionally moved by the message (e.g., angry, pleased).
11. able to consider the message's implications or consequences.
12. convinced the message was important to my work or life.

Being consultants paid for their attention, the authors obviously propose some solutions. By understanding the types of attention and how they function, they say, we can devise effective ways of managing this precious commodity both within and outside our organizations.

For most of us, such focus on focus is not ingrained. Being conscious of the focus and depth of your attention at all times is a difficult skill that few of us are born with (and even Zen masters acknowledge takes years to learn). However, several techniques can help us on the road to becoming "attention leaders":

1. Know Thyself
Research cited by the authors demonstrates that leaders who are the most self-aware are the most successful at directing the attention of others.

  • Go public about where you spend your attention by telling others about the items in your field of attention. In the process, you'll also become more self-aware.
  • Get feedback from those around you. Family, friends and employees often have a better sense of how you spend your attention than you do.
  • Ask your assistant to record any meeting during your workday. After the meeting, write down every item covered in the meeting. Then listen to the tape --how good are you at recalling just where your attention goes?
  • Use diagnostic tools to measure your attention. The authors have developed a self-reporting tool called AttentionScape to assess how people and organizations allocate their attention (log on to to test your own focus).

2. Create Attention Agendas
Attention management is not the same as time management (as anyone whose mind has wandered during a boring meeting can attest).

  • Ask yourself what areas most deserve your attention and parcel out your time accordingly. For example, Don Kneisel, executive director of IT for Tropicana Casino & Resort in Atlantic City, N.J., says he focuses intently on only two issues at a time, while letting perennial concerns like regulatory control and security percolate on the back burner.
  • Shake up your meetings. For example, if you expect 50% of attention to focus on a given topic, that's how much of the meeting should be devoted to it. In addition, most attention will probably be given to the meeting's first and last items, so the middle of the meeting should be taken up with the least important issues.

3. Create attention guards If you expect overworked employees to focus on a new initiative, then you must relieve them of responsibility for focusing on something else.

  • Kneisel creates "buffers" around developers by asking people in other areas not to call during an intense project. "I expect my manager to run some interference by dealing with logistics so the developer can get into a state of flow," he explains.
  • Hire "an attentional assistant" (read, secretary) to manage the firm's logistical issues, freeing up energy for key managers to focus on a new initiative.
  • Create information policies that discourage sending non-essential information like jokes, sports pools and the like.
  • Keep abreast of new routing and filtering technologies to limit information.

Other Special Reports by Eva Marer
5 Tips For Avoiding Burnout

Companies Confront Rising Network Security Threats

Outsourcing: The Reluctant Bridegroom

Slowdown! Or Not?

The Emergence of the Chief Privacy Officer

4. Measure Organizational Attention

In addition to AttentionScape and other diagnostic tools, IT managers can use technology to measure corporate attention.

  • Analyze Web traffic to see where focus is being diverted. A recent survey suggest that 90% of employees view non-work-related sites during the day.
  • Observe or visit discussion-oriented intranet sites within your company to see what people are talking about. For example, George Conrades, CEO of Akamai Technologies, reported in a recent Business 2.0 article that he watches the way conversations develop in e-mail to define the top three issues for his business. (Editor's note: See CIO Digest: August 23, 2001, for more on Conrades's management strategies.)
  • Employ software programs to analyze the content of e-mail messages at an aggregated level (you should probably refrain from snooping into individual messages).
  • If you want to see whether a particular information channel is being attended to, offer a prize to someone who responds to a message embedded deeply within the channel.

5. Pay for attention

  • Outsource non-essential work. But beware of outsourcing the baby with the bathwater, says Ed Emig, CIO of OAO Corp., a company in Greenbelt, Md., that provides desktop support to the aerospace industry. Emig subcontracts only support for LOTUS Notes because his company's largest client NASA uses Microsoft Exchange.
  • Pay a consultant to "pay attention" to an important business issue. For example, Ricardo Diaz-Rohr, CIO of Lufthansa Passenger Airlines in Frankfurt, Germany, uses a consultant to constantly track and evaluate outside service providers. He prefers to focus his energy on project management -making sure existing providers deliver.
  • Offer positive rewards for attention. Simple recognition works wonders for Kneisel. "If a developer really works hard project, they get face time with the executives," he says. "They get to carry the torch and show how a new application works."

    Editor's note: For more on outsourcing, read Eva Marer's report, "Outsourcing: The Reluctant Bridegroom."

An important takeaway from this book is that, whether you recognize it or not, where you spend your attention -- the set of concerns and goals you focus on -- impacts your employees too. Employees throughout a company make decisions about what's important based on their perceptions of what their leaders are paying attention to. Consequently, leaders have to be more careful about how they invest their attention. To manage well, the authors write, we must be self-aware. We must communicate our attention goals to our employees and customers. Finally, we must believe that the issues we focus on are the most important ones for our own careers, our company, our employees and our customers.

Eva Marer is a freelance business and technology reporter based in New York. She covers investments, personal finance and corporate technology issues for a variety of trade and consumer magazines. Contact her at


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