Managing attention : a key challenge for the future of businesses

I’ve been willing to tackle this topic for a long time and seing Julien le Nestour‘s presentation at the last Enterprise 2.0 forum made me feel it was high time to put my thoughts in words.

Facing an increasing amount of information and considering the time we need to peruse, process, generate it, time is a key factor. In fact, even ignoring information takes time. But, on the other hand, I’m convinced that the assertion that we’ve reached a point of no return, that we don’t have time anymore to deal with more information is wrong. We don’t have a time problem but a prioritisation one. The point is not to have less accessible information but a better qualification of the information that’s pushed to us (the rest being accessible,findable in case of need) and a better hierarchisation to be able to handle what matters first.

These prioritisation and hierarchisation issues matter even more now that many enterprises and vendors realize that providing users with a unified collaboration context (ie the “unique customized home page” or “unique activity stream”) will be a major issue in the upcoming months. In the general public web we already saw a first attempt with Google  Wave : a service with a really impressive potential that was quickly deserted by those who were supposed to be its power users, those who had to centralize a large amount of information feeds in an unique interface and for whom prioritisation and hierarchisation were the missing feature. On the business side and according to what I saw at Lotusphere, Lotus Notes is also heading this way and I bet that the success of this new approach will highly depend on how the product will handle these issues. If it doesn’t…

So we have to identify some objective criterias for prioritisation. To make it simple, we can say that prioritisation depends on the value created while handling the information. For instance, spending one hour to answer a colleague who needs some information to handle a strategic activity or task is more important than spending one hour to read emails (or anything else) that are nothing but “for your information” emssages.

The same logics applies when trying to introduce a new tool in a context where the ROI is known for being very hard to get. So, Julien showed us of Schlumberger used another indicator called ROA (Return on attention) that helps to evaluate how a new tool is worth according to the value of the time of the user, the number of occurence of a given task and its criticality in a given use case (ok…I simplified it a lot).  This allows not only to easily justify a new tool according to its benefits compared to the current situation but also to take into account the importance of things like ergonomics in an arbitration thats supposed to be economical. As a matter of fact, maybe the best enterprise social software platform on the market has a blog feature but if the interface is so boor that the time people will spend to understand and use it will not be justified by the benefit in return, it’s better to take a tool that’s less “prestigious” but that will be easily used by anybody.

There’s also one more layer of complexity. Prioritisation is not only a matter of individual arbitration but a collective dynamic. I prioritize according to my own benefits and objectives, the anyone who sends me information prioritizes according to is own objectives. What can be strategic for one may be trivial for the other. So it’s important to have some “nice behaviors policies” (think about the other, wonder what is necessary…) and some arbitration mechanisms (when should I help, when should I say no…)

All these questions have to be tackled when tools are implemented, in the change management process and, beforehand, by vendors who won’t be able any longer to afford building bottlenecks and let users sort them out. These bottlenecks are a key issue in enterprise performance and have to be tackled in a systemic and coherent way by tools, business practices, management and organization.

Since real time seems to be a very trendy topic now, understanding its limits according to prioritisation issues may be quite useful.

I’ll conclude quoting Julien Le Nestour : attention is now a key resource, it’s scarce and constrained so its use have to be optimized in priority, even before funding.

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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