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It’s the attention economy, stupid!

Or at least that’s what Tom Davenport and John Beck claim in their new book, The Attention Economy, Understanding the New Currency of Business (published by Harvard Business School Press).

Davenport is the author of Mission Critical: Realizing the Promise of Enterprise Systems and Process Innovation: Reengineering Work through Information Technology, and co-author, with Larry Prusak, of Working Knowledge: How Organizations Manage What They Know. Beck is a professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and has published more than 100 books, articles and business reports. Both are with the Accenture Institute for Strategic Change.

They write that in the attention economy “human bandwidth” is pushed to the limit. They point to the following: 60,000 new books are published annually in the United States alone (300,000 worldwide); 18,000 magazines are published domestically, with 225 billion pages of editorial content; 400,000 scholarly journals are published each year; 1.5 billion catalogs are sent annually to American households; 87.2 billion pieces of direct mail are sent each year in the United States; more than 13,300 separate electronic databases are on the market; and more than 2 billion Web pages exist, with Internet traffic double every 100 days.

And let’s not forget e-mail—200 a day is the average for business managers.

The authors argue that the competition for attention from all this information can cause “organizational attention deficit disorder.” Workers simply have more things to process than they have resources. It’s incontrovertible: The failure of successful attention management is responsible for a host of significant business problems, even failures.

How can we spot attention deficit disorder in our own organizations? Here are some of the symptoms Davenport and Beck identify: greater probability of missing or overlooking important information when making decisions; less time for reflection on larger issues; growing inability to capture and hold others’ attention (they cite as examples the need to repeat messages more often and create flashier presentations); and diminished capacity to focus when necessary. Sound familiar?

In The Attention Economy, the authors describe a tool they have created to measure attention to help companies diagnose and analyze attention management issues, which is different from and far more important than time management, they successfully argue. The tool, “AttentionScape,” addresses six types of attention that involve the opposite extremes of three categories. The authors say attention can rest at the front or back of the mind, be based on aversion or attraction or be captive or voluntary.

Far from a pedantic tome, The Attention Economy is written with wit, insight and compelling research. Davenport and Beck are right on target when they write: “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.

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