Is anyone paying attention to attention? Almost a decade ago, business guru Thomas Davenport declared that attention management was the most important success factor. As individuals, as teams and as businesses, we need to pay attention to the right information if we are to achieve our goals. Nonetheless, at a major knowledge management (KM) conference I attended recently, not a single presentation used attention or distraction in its title.
To be fair, attention is a constant theme. Prioritizing information, providing alerts and pointing people toward topics of interest are all important and part of the goals of KM professionals. These often came up in conversations and presentations, but attention didn’t seem to get explicit emphasis. (Distraction, which is the other side of the coin, was mentioned often, but always in negative terms.)
I suspect attention is neglected because professionals think that if you put the jewels of information in front of people (no easy trick), they’ll pick them up. For people who are searching for knowledge, this is probably true. Unfortunately, most of us spend a lot of time scanning without that level of engagement (Web surfing, checking email, flipping through journals and magazines). As individuals, this can be inefficient and take us away from tasks. For businesses, the inability to get people to focus on key messages, vital information and warnings can be disastrous.
Our brains are not built to be value focussed. What catches our interest is what is new, moving, local and provocative. When I worked on the development of IBM’s Web site, we actually tested for attention: where eyeballs went and lingered based on font, size, color and position. This went into the development of pages (for awhile) that aligned client and employee attention (at least on those pages) with corporate goals.
When the U.S. wanted to use television to better prepare preschoolers for education, they looked toward those experts in grabbing attention — advertisers. Sesame Street explicitly used the lessons of advertising to design the show with pacing, color, movement and repetition that would work. It worked so well that some teachers complained that the children had been “ruined” for education. The reality is that we have all been “ruined” by a world of attention-grabbing techniques and tools across the many media we are exposed to.
This is why attention needs to be a major focus of any KM initiative. If we as individuals or on behalf of our organizations don’t design our search engines, calendars, Web pages, email applications, etc., etc. with an understanding of what will capture and hold attention, we cede that power to advertisers and other entities who have such a focus. There is a fierce competition for our attention, and, if we are going to achieve our goals, we need to get a better understanding of it and put that understanding to work.