Is attention finite?

John Hagel explores the economics of attention and describes the issues for today’s business leaders:

“Attention economics starts with the observation that, as products and information proliferate, attention becomes the scarce resource … we each have only 24 hours in the day. Where we choose to allocate this attention will increasingly determine who creates economic value and who destroys economic value.”

He provides some insightful advice for an executive in the attention economy:

“The attention economy is surfacing around us today … it is not some distant future. As with most economic trends, those who spot them and act on them early are most likely to create significant value. Here are some early action items:

1) Explore the implications of attention scarcity for firm structure … I view attention scarcity as a key catalyst driving the unbundling and rebundling of firms that is occurring on a global scale
2) Master the management techniques required to increase return on attention, not only for customers but for employees and business partners as well
3) Create mechanisms to help customers and employees attract the attention they need to become more successful in their endeavors, especially in terms of their talent development.”

Hagel’s arguments are valid, but this view sounds a too narrowminded to me. He’s proposing a way to make tomorrow’s new business models backwards compatible with today’s business models.

The problem with discussing attention in economic terms, in my opinion, which is, by the way, completely uninformed by any kind of economic education, is this notion that attention is finite.

It’s true that time limits how many words I can read on a page, how many links I can click on in a browser, and how many billboards I will see in a day. In addition to time, the language, user interface and art of design as we know it limits what I can take in and digest.

But the fluidity of attention is limited more by the medium and the information therein than it is by the brain’s ability to absorb, interpret and output ideas. The brain has an amazing ability to abstract things, to alter viewpoints and understand them both on macro and micro levels. Depending on your perspective, ‘time’ can be as literal as the movement of shadows on the ground or as abstract as evolution of species.

Imagine describing to someone 100 years ago the idea that you could play hours and hours of new and interesting music from a personalized stream of songs produced by pros and amateurs alike from around the world that never repeats itself. Imagine describing to a teen as recently as 1990 that she could build a nearly infinite network of friends and interesting strangers and stay in touch with all of them almost all the time.

It’s as if attention is expanding because of better production methods, easier distribution mechanisms and deeper meaning in the information that gets produced and distributed. While discussing this with Cameron Marlow on the train this morning, he came up with the term “attention inflation” to describe this phenomenon. I like that.

Hagel is right about the most obvious approach to making money in this world. There will always be opportunities in the inefficiencies (or “friction” as edge economists say) in the way information is communicated.

We see this now in the way media properties charge advertisers a fee for the cost of reaching valuable eyeballs. But advertisers are forever chasing people to get their attention. They are always paying for the inefficiencies in the market. And media properties are motivated to retain inefficiencies in order to capitalize on that friction. This business model locks companies on both sides into the status quo.

The opportunity, on the other hand, is vast for those who are able to alter our viewpoints and abstract the way we understand information. It’s about offering new methods to communicate and taking advantage of the methods that are already infinitely fluid. The supply of attention can be limitless when the barriers are removed and the right lubricant is applied.

I guess all I’m testing out here is the idea that the attention economy is not so much a supply and demand issue as much as it is an issue of abstraction. New markets form when people can expand their attention rather than allocate it. And the early movers to find abstract solutions to communication and information problems enjoy enormous benefits down the road when everyone else wants to hop on the ride.

Decision-making through stories rather than data

John Hagel’s post the other day included a great little nugget:

“If executives need lots of data before they feel comfortable making a decision, chances are they will not act until it is way too late. Don’t get me wrong, data are extremely valuable. It’s just that, if we insist on too much data, we will often miss significant changes on the horizon. This isn’t just about analysis paralysis; it’s much more insidious…

Data not only draw us into the past, they also draw us into the core because the core is so well documented and analyzed relative to various edges where data are at best fragmentary and often contradictory. To avoid being blind-sided, we need to pay equal attention to stories and train ourselves to detect patterns in the stories, even if the data supporting the stories remains fragmentary. Stories are generally our first indicators that something really interesting is about to happen; something that data will only reveal to us in full force much, much later.”

As any researcher knows, the data will tell you just about whatever story you want to hear. More important than messages in the data is what’s happening right now that is not yet measurable. That in combination with stories we learn over time gives us insight into the possible answers to the questions that we might not even understand how to ask.

Here are a few questions Internet business historians might ask today:

  • The banner ad made web pages profit centers and disrupted offline advertising markets. Are web services disrupting the web page model, and, if so, who made the transition to web page advertising successfully? Who failed? Why?
  • The media business rewards companies that out-niche the niche. How should a company react when it knows it’s being challenged by a smaller, more nimble, more focused media property?
  • The operational efficiencies enabled by the Internet created several manufacturing and distribution giants. Are there quiet giants or even not so quiet giants on the horizon that have both found and are leveraging new kinds of efficiencies?
  • There are insightful leaders in any market who consistently make smart decisions. Given a particular market condition, who has proven to be successsful and what can we learn from their recent decisions?

Also implicit in Hagel’s statements is the idea of intuition. Trust in your own intuition is a key leadership skill that a lot of people are missing. Never mistake fearlessness for intuitive confidence. Fearlessness can go a long way fast…including off the cliff.