Davenport and Beck’s Book “The Attention Economy”

March 13, 2007 at 9:45 am | Posted in Attention Management, Book Review | 2 Comments

I’m not prone to doing book reviews in my blog, but as someone who researches attention management in the workplace (Enterprise Attention Management or EAM as I call it), I wanted to point people to Davenport and Beck’s book “The Attention Economy”. It is a seminal work in this field and there are things that resonated with me as well as some things that missed their mark.

Things I liked about Davenport and Beck’s book “The Attention Economy”

  • Their thesis – that there is an attention economy – is a solid one that people and organizations have to wake up to. This is the best foundation setting you will find on how our attention is being stretched thin, the costs that implies, and ways of framing the problem.
  • Davenport and Beck use the same words I do to describe AM as a “lens” with which to view a number of issues. This is a subtlety often lost as venture capitalists and vendors look for a new market. AM is not a discrete thing you can buy into easily.
  • The authors correctly point out how managing a complex set of rules for any technology will fail because people don’t want to have to pay that much attention to their attention management!

Things I didn’t like about Davenport and Beck’s book “The Attention Economy”

  • Using a definition of attention that includes action (p20 ends the definition with “… and then we decide whether to act”) is grammatically acceptable, but dilutes the topic and reduces its prescriptive ability. At that point organizational structure (chapter 10) and executive visioning (chapter 8 ) are all about attention management. A corollary of this is when they frame the problem as getting and keeping attention (p84). Simply rephrasing insights from other disciplines without adding value (for example, on p 155 when it says “Some strategy choices (phrased in attention-oriented terms) include … should we focus on growth within our existing business, or diversification?”) provides a consistent narrative, but without additional explanatory power. I feel that using Attention as a proxy for action pulls in an inordinate number of existing disciplines (corporate strategy, organizational strategy, advertising), but fails to add value to them through new insights. This dilutes the prescriptive value of the Attention Management concept. On the contrary, limiting the issue to “how to focus attention” rather than including “what should one focus attention on” is a narrower, more insightful, and ultimately more actionable approach.
  • The value of the content of the message is drowned out by the focus on how to get people’s attention. After all, being right with this message helps get attention the next time you send a message. There is one small nod to the idea that having great content or a great product matters. The rest is about how to yell louder and shake people awake.
  • The introduction of “organizational ADD” (p7, 85) may be irresistible, but gets off on the wrong path as I’ve mentioned before in this blog. First, it attaches a controversial subject with a budding new field of study. ADHD is a term that itself begs questions about who is the sufferer (the child? The teacher? The parent? Can you have a disorder that only affects others?), normalcy (what is the normal attention span of a child? Is it what we adults say it should be or is it determined in an empirical way?), and absolutism (does one have it or not, like a virus, or is having ADHD a continuum?). It also contains a rich set of cultural connotations that, combined with the questions I mentioned, becomes counterproductive when applied to attention management. Second, real ADHD refers to unintentional task switching while most of AM refers to intentional behavior. Third, it seems the 4 symptoms described are for individuals in a work environment, not organizations. “Organizational ADD” sounds like it should refer to the more interesting topic of organizations that can’t focus on any project or initiative for long and dysfunctionally jump between priorities (which, incidentally, is covered in “The Passive Aggressive Organization” article in Harvard Business Review).




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  1. […] Economy” is the best information overload/attention management book I’ve read so far (despite several flaws).  For that reason alone I avoided obvious, snarky rebuttal titles for this blog post such as […]

  2. It’s going to be finish of mine day, however before ending I am reading this enormous paragraph to improve my knowledge.

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