The Attention Economy
Understanding the New Currency of Business
By Thomas H. Davenport and John C.
CHAPTER 1: A New Perspective on
Welcome to the Attention Economy
Rob Lippincott is starved for attention.
As senior vice president of an online learning network in
Boston, he spends virtually every minute of his day working
or catching up on family business he has nothing left
for "hobbies," a term that has come to seem quaint.
At home, he's devoted to his wife and school-age daughters,
but even so he feels compelled to check voice mail and e-mail
on a regular basis.
At work, the scarcity of attention is palpable. About thirty-five
people work for him software developers and content
experts and all of them feel the need for more of Rob's
attention. They and his peers in the company often ambush
him on his way to the bathroom. Sometimes the best he can
do is to offer someone who wants a meeting with him a shared
wait in the cafeteria line. His office is surrounded by great
restaurants, but he rarely has enough spare time and attention
to visit them. Rob spends the great majority of his day in
meetings: in between he answers e-mails and voice
mails. He and his colleagues often resort to instant messages
because regular e-mails aren't attention getting enough.
Even his commutes are consumed by cell-phone conversations
or voice mail. Occasionally Rob will put the top down on his
convertible on sunny days so that the wind noise will dissuade
callers from long conversations.
As the information assault persists, Rob worries about the
implications of his attention deficit. Is he giving his family
all the attention it deserves? As a manager, does he owe
more attention to the employees who report to him? Does
his inability to reflect quietly mean that he'll overlook
something important in his business? These concerns persist,
and Rob has no idea how to address them. No massive infusions
of free attention seem to be forthcoming.
If this situation sounds familiar, you are not alone. We all
know a person like Rob Lippincott (though, in fact, he
is a friend of ours). He is your boss, your neighbor,
your spouse or perhaps even you. His experience represents
today's most pressing problem: not enough attention to
meet the information demands of business and society.
Rob and the rest of us live in an attention economy. In this
new economy, capital, labor, information, and knowledge are
all in plentiful supply. 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. What's
in short supply is human attention. Telecommunications bandwidth
is not a problem, but human bandwidth is. At one point, software
magnates had the ambition to put "information at your
fingertips". Now we've got it, and in vast quantities.
But no one will be informed by it, learn from it, or act on
it unless they've got some free attention to devote to
the information. Unfortunately, most organizations have precious
little attention to spare. This leads us to a key principle
of attention management.
PRINCIPLE: Before you
can manage attention, you need to understand just how depleted
this resource is for organizations and individuals.
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. Attention is the missing link between
the "bloomin' buzzin' confusion" (to use
the phrase of William James, an early fan of attention)
of the world around us and the decisions and actions necessary
to make the world better.
Today, attention is the real currency of businesses and individuals.
Purist economists may take some umbrage at our calling attention
a "currency". But it does have many attributes of
a monetary instrument. Those who don't have it want it. Even
those who have it want more. You can trade it: you can
purchase it any job description that falls under the
"consultant" category exemplifies this. People work
to preserve and extend what they already have just
look at the proliferation of caller ID devices and e-mail
filtering software. And attention can be converted into other
currencies, like accumulating enough "e-points"
by viewing online ads to "earn" a DVD player.
In postindustrial societies, attention has become a more valuable
currency than the kind you store in bank accounts. The vast
majority of products have become cheaper and more abundant
as the sum total of human wealth increases. Venture capital
dollars have multiplied like breeding hamsters. The problems
for businesspeople lie on both sides of the attention equation:
how to get and hold the attention of consumers, stockholders,
potential employees, and the like, and how to parcel out their
own attention in the face of overwhelming options. People
and companies that do this, succeed. The rest fail. Understanding
and managing attention is now the single most important determinant
of business success. Welcome to the attention economy.
Previous generations of citizens didn't
have an attention problem, at least not compared to ours.
They didn't have the Internet with its ever-increasing
number of Web sites. At most, they had a few channels of broadcast
television, a local newspaper, and a few magazines
Life, perhaps, which was mostly pictures, or Time
or even Reader's Digest if they were particularly ambitious.
Given the explosion of information sources since then, these
previous objects of our attention seem rather paltry.
But even those sources are voluminous compared to what our
earlier ancestors consumed. The Sunday New York Times
contains more factual information in one edition than in all
the written material available to a reader in the fifteenth
century. In 1472, for example, the best university library
in the world, at Queen's College in Cambridge, housed 199
books. Francis Bacon complained of the available books in
English that "the whole stock, numerous as it appears
at first view, proves on examination to be but scanty."1
Back in the days before Gutenberg, it took months or years
for a few dedicated scribes to create a single copy of a single
book. A literate medieval person, provided he or she was not
interrupted by the Inquisition or Bubonic Plague, could probably
read the book as fast as your typical modern American high
school student. The problem was not finding time to read,
but finding enough reading to fill the time. Information was
a seller's market, and books were considered far more valuable
than, say, peasants.
Excerpted from The Attention Economy
by Thomas H. Davenport and John C. Beck ©2001 Thomas
H. Davenport and John C. Beck. Excerpted by permission of
Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. No
part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without
permission in writing from the publisher.