The story goes like this: In 1865 Coal was a big deal. A lot of R&D work was being done on how to make better use of coal. Make it burn hotter, make steam faster, make it burn more quickly, etc.
This guy, James Watt, had a big breakthrough. He created a steam engine that was far more efficient than the old models. It was more powerful, smaller and used less coal. This was great news and it got a lot of attention, and the orders for his engines came flowing in. Before long Watt’s engine was being used all over the place. In fact, because it was so efficient coal was now being used in more places and for more things than ever before.
And so this guy named William Jevons started to study the use of Coal. Think of him as the fringe peak-oil alarmist of his time (who was, well, right…). He wrote a book called “The Coal Question” and in it he surmized that there is a paradoxical effect when you increase the efficiency with which a resource is used:
increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource.
This was extremely counter-intuitive to people at the time, and I believe it remains so today. In fact, just yesterday Paul Kedrosky noticed it in terms of electricity consumption and the increasing energy efficiency of batteries. We strive for increased fuel efficiency, but it is possible that we would simply accelerate the consumption of Oil if we were to do so. It is likely in fact that driving is bound, by some degree, to economic affordability and that more people would drive further if it were more cost effective.
Attention as resource
I was proudly recounting Jevons’ Paradox to my colleague Pete the other day. I was actually surmising that if Kate had a more powerful computer, she would simply run more programs all at once and it would eat up any gain in processing power that she would get through buying a faster computer. I was feeling good about the genius of the whole thing and mentioned that I was curious how this paradox could be applied to Enterprise 2.0 when Pete quipped “well, attention is the resource.”
A lot of thinking has gone on around the idea of Attention as a resource that should not be abused or depleted and it is certainly a productive way to think about it, but on the other hand we are constantly looking for more and more efficient ways to utilize that attention. Twitter is a more efficient use of attention through its smaller and faster messages, instant messaging increases the efficiency of many interactions, wikis make more efficient use of the attention paid to long form content, etc.
We may be falling for the fallacy that enables Jevons’ Paradox, and by doing so we may be pushing people to the limit of their capability, even though we intend the opposite.
The implications for Social Business
Enterprise 2.0 (and Web 2.0 in general) is a great example of technology increasing the efficiency of the consumption of a resource. By being social we are creating more efficient and useful filters and information sharing capabilities. Whether it is expertise location on an internal social network or the ease with which we can share family photos, we have more efficient ways than ever to interact with large groups of people.
And so there is a challenge for one of the fundamental assumptions of Enterprise 2.0: that increasing the efficiency with which people connect and collaborate will allow for emergent or unexpected outcomes.
Helping create emergent outcomes is core to what we do at Dachis Group, so we have been thinking about it a lot.
The challenge is this: by simply increasing the efficiency through which people connect and collaborate, we may paradoxically consume even more of their attention because it is now easier for them to connect with people. This can lead to a depletion of their ability to do useful things with their new connections because they will be too busy monitoring, maintaining and developing their networks.
Design with intent
To me this is a question of design and intent, and to some degree it brings up the question of whether much of what has been going on in Enterprise 2.0 is in fact a crock.
We need to stop designing tools and platforms which are simply meant to allow people to connect, share and collaborate more. In doing this we are being incredibly irresponsible with the resource we value most. Instead we need to design for business intent and utilize our efficiencies as tools to help solve real business problems.
It is only by creating more efficient ways for workers to do the job they are expected to do that we can create the space and time they need in order to create emergent outcomes. This applies not only to software, but strategy as well. As people become more efficient through the use of Social Business tools, the surplus attention that they create needs to be protected through policy.
It is only through the application of both technological and strategic efforts that you can do both, and that we can avoid falling victim to Jevons’ Paradox.