The Attention Question in Social Business

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.

240px-SteamEngine_Boulton&Watt_1784This 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.

15 thoughts on “The Attention Question in Social Business

  1. Yes! I’ve been thinking along these lines too. It’s really a physical time question for how much mindshare a tool “should” have. And the confusion arises not in the ability to do things quickly, but the internal question “is this the best way I should be spending my time?” during the working day. More importantly, there is a second layer question “Are these tools helping me do things I already do better?” – the eminent question of whether a tool is worthy of the attention it gets.

    Design with intent one way to do this. People arrive at google for example with their “intent to search” already fixed in their heads. Google measures success by how fast it can get people in and out of their site. I believe business intent is defined by business verbs. These business verbs must be the most primitive things people already do in their business day. That’s the key thing – social services that make things we *already do* much easier. We’re all Dachis now, it would be nice to meet up one day (here at Headshift?). I love these conversations – I’ve developed some thinking on this internally at headshift. Good post!

  2. Clay Shirky once observed that it is almost impossible to fully predict to the social dynamics that social software will create.

    With this in mind, how do we design social software that achieves a particular goal?

  3. I think you are onto some thing major here J – You know that when you are in flow how an interruption can lose you hours – even the idea itself.

    My sense here is that my own isolation here on PEI reinforced by my living in the country and only going into town occasionally has helped my own thinking. Walking and mowing are two very important processes for me.

    Real problems and really new ideas do not get solved or discovered by being in the mainstream or by being busy with many things. They tend to be serendipitous flashes arising from almost unconscious processing – like that time before you get up in the morning.

    How can you see the patterns when you are too busy?

    On the other hand I would go barmy if social media did not connect me to you and other friends – I van have my isolation and not.

    On the other hand there is a limit to how many online relationships I can attend too as well. With a measly 1,200 Twitter followers – I interact with maybe 100 tops and 30 most often and I really care the most about 8-15 – so the Fibonacci numbers come back again. My world of attention is very small really. As is the correlation my world of influence – my inner circle.

    I don’t think that this limits of attention can be breached successfully. As we connect to more than 150, our attention gets drained and we have no more influence – unless we are a A lister and that is show business and another topic.

    If anything too much attention is being used up for most people. Might be interesting to test the limits of attention in number and depth of relationships with more rigour.

    After all if the social enterprise is to exist – lets leave Kumbya and find the science – for if it is natural the math will exist – it always does

  4. Great post. And it boils down to simple management of attention in the same way that we manage time. Acknowledge we have a finite amount, and plan in advance how much we will devote to any forthcoming tasks. The problem is, as you point out, that this is all new, so we leap into the Twitter/Facebook/over-connected community oblivious of the fact that we need some disciplines when we have this many connections. A good blog post always sets you thinking. Thank you (although I don’t have time for this). 🙂

  5. Thank you for a brilliant observation. I agree with the observation, but your post led me to the wrong conclusion. That was probably more my doing than yours, but I struggled with it for the last few days (thanks for that).
    I focus on the use of social computing for product innovation, product development, and engineering and product lifecycle management (PLM). When I tried to apply the anology there, I couldn’t make it fit. Then it occured to me why I couldn’t apply the “Jevons-Jevon’s Analogy.” Is it really a problem that we are consuming the use of attention if it leads to greater levels of productivity? No. In fact, that is what we are trying to do. It is another paradox. Of course we don’t want to use up our scarce resource of peoples’ attention – but we do want to maximize it. And social computing helps maximize the productivity of this scarce resource.
    The issue is maximizing the business value from the scarce resource. The paradox and the analogy are important, but if you don’t consider productivity it can lead you to a very wrong conclusion. In fact, the Wikipedia definition of Jevons Paradox points out that it “ignores other benefits from increased efficiency.”Aren’t those exactly the benefits we are trying to achieve with social computing and social business?
    There is more in my post, although it may be more focused on social computing in PLM and not as interesting to your audience. Thanks again for a briliant post and for making me think!
    http://tech-clarity.com/clarityonplm/2009/social-computing-plm-scarce-attention/

  6. @jim part of my point was that a lot of enterprise social computing tools right now focus primarily on drawing attention, and not on increasing productivity as a result. Increasing productivity is a much more difficult process than just “connecting people to see what happens”.

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