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The Attention Economy
The Attention Economy
Understanding the New Currency of Business
By Thomas H. Davenport and John C. Beck

 

CHAPTER 1: A New Perspective on Business

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.

DEFICIT 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.

Information Glut
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 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

 
 
 
 


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