Making the most of key resources in collaboration

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Summary : tomorrow’s organization will be connected and communicative. This is the only way to success in the knowledge economy. But communication and exchange, which are essential foundations for collaboration, need a sender and a receiver who mobilize their attention. But attention, more than time, is the scarce productive ressource which use has to be optimized. In the end, if everyone makes the most of the system in one’s own interest, the whole organization may become paralyzed. Solutions exist and suppose more accessible business tools, information filtering based on context and better education and training.

Whatever the organizational structure is, top-down, networked, push, pull etc… there’s always a constant concern : optimizing the use of resources. Said in other words : “get the maximum by spending the minimum”, “prevent productive potential wasting”.

In this productivity driven view, people see time as being the limiting factor. That’s, right…at least in a system based on repetitive tasks and involving few knowledge if any. But this assumption becomes wrong in a knowledge economy where time is not a relevant productivity indicator at all because individual production is not linear or constant anymore. And not individual either by the way. In this context, the limiting factor is attention, which could be defined as qualified time, a subdivision of time. That’s the time dedicated to do/deal with/process something, being focused on it (by the way it would be interesting to start a discussion on what attention at work is….to find a less shoddy definition than this one).

So attention is the scarce resource which use has to be optimized.

But we know than nobody can be focused, attentive, 8 hours a day. A least not 8 hours in a row. That’s, in fact, a reason why the barrier between personal and professional time is blurring.

One of the best way to avoid productive time wasting is not to make sure everyone is checking in the office at the right time but to make work tools available when and where attention is maximal. Note that attention is not always the result of a voluntary action. Who did never have a brilliant idea about a business concerns at night, on vacation or during a week end…and lost it because he was not empowered to work or share it at the very moment when it came ? Moment when one’s mind shifted to a business focus unpurposely on a non dedicated time ?

Another way is to avoid disruptive elements that come and interrupt employees in an “attention phase”. These elements are well known : untimely email reception as well as any incoming signal that grab attention and force to refocus after : instant messaging, phone calls or social media. There’s an easy solution being used by many people : disconnecting from everything. But disconnection has risks : not being able to communicate with people who can help, not receiving the information that would help to solve a problem. The notion of context that helps filtering the available information and, most of all, the information being pushed at a given moment is essential and will play a key role in tomorrow’s business applications.

Then after, there’s the need to master the human factor. As a matter of fact, these signals don’t fall from the sky : they’re sent by people. That’s the paradox of the new coming forms of organizations. If each person makes the most of his ability to share, alert and mobilize others, the situation will look like a tragedy of the commons applied to attention. If each person makes the most of other’s attention in his own interest, the collective result will be horrendous because no one will have enough attention left to do his own work. This issue is fare from being the easier to solve.

Of course, specific education and training will be needed to make people aware of the attention paradigm and what a wise use of people’s attention means (using any communication channel is using others’ attention by the way). But is this a risk for weak signals and serendipity which are essential in agile, networked and “pull” organization ?

The result will surely be a mix of all these solutions…but is still unclear…and far.

Anyway, if organizations need to become (over ?) connected and communicative, they’ll need mechanisms that will prevent these skills from backfiring and avoid the paradoxical trap according to which when everyone makes the most of the system, the organization as a whole will suffer from it.