posted 17 May 2002 in Volume 5 Issue 8
The knowledge: Tom Davenport
Simon Lelic talks to Tom Davenport, co-author of The Attention Economy and one of six keynote speakers at KM Europe 2002.
Internet traffic doubles every one hundred days. On average, managers have to deal with up to 200 messages on a daily basis. Information overload is not simply a concept promulgated by technology vendors looking to sell you the latest version of their KM/DM/CM system; it is a constant threat to the productivity of every knowledge worker across the globe. As such, the scarcest resource in the modern economy is not talent or ideas, but attention itself.
This is the fundamental premise of Tom Davenport’s most recent book, The Attention Economy, co-authored with fellow academic and Accenture consultant, John Beck. While the authors accept that they are not the first to think or even write about the subject, Davenport and Beck add a new twist to established knowledge management theory by focusing on the business implications of managing what they describe as the “new currency” of the corporate world. In a sense, Davenport believes the subject represents a natural progression from early KM thinking.
“In the more sophisticated companies, we’ve pretty much finished phase one of KM and are moving on to phase two,” he says. “In phase one we put the knowledge out there in repositories and encouraged people – with only some success – to use it. The problem is that everybody today is too busy to consult and contribute to knowledge repositories on a frequent basis. So now, in phase two, we have to figure out how to embed knowledge and KM into the jobs of knowledge workers, which is a much greater challenge. It has a great payoff, but it will be difficult and time-consuming to do.”
Davenport argues that managing attention – how workers spend the finite ‘funds’ at their disposal – is closely aligned to this process. “Nobody has the spare attention to muck around in knowledge repositories – we can’t even read all our e-mail,” he says. “If the knowledge doesn’t get your attention, it’s pretty much useless. Embedding knowledge in work is the best way to deal with the attention issue, since it minimises the separate attention a knowledge worker has to pay to relevant knowledge.”
As an aside – albeit an important one – Davenport is keen to emphasise the distinction between time management and attention management. As Davenport and Beck point out in The Attention Economy, the use of time as a measure of output has dominated thinking since the dawn of the industrial age. Indeed, the idea that time equals money still rings true in many corporations, particularly those that rely on billable hours to determine their revenues, and time management as a concept has exploded since the 1960s. Yet as anyone who has sat through a double period of maths in the lesson before lunch at school will know, the time spent on a task is rarely proportionate to the attention devoted to it. As the authors note: “A huge amount of effective attention can be given to something in a small amount of time.”
Davenport is therefore convinced that measures of time and output are likely to become less important, to be replaced by a focus on the value of attention. The question that arises, therefore, is how organisations can act to prevent employees being overwhelmed by information, in turn allowing them to focus their attention on the tasks that really add value to their work.
Technology offers one possible solution, says Davenport, although as he suggests, the promises made by vendors are rarely fulfilled. “The filters, agents and expert systems that were supposedly going to solve this problem have never really helped much, and to help at all they require a substantial investment of the user’s attention,” he says. Davenport certainly doesn’t count himself among what he calls the “anti-technology crowd” – as he points out, if it weren’t for KM-oriented technologies, we wouldn’t be talking at all about these issues. Rather, as he says: “[Technology] is highly necessary and helpful, but not sufficient.”
An alternative and, in Davenport’s opinion, a more promising answer to the problem lies with policy-based solutions. “These might involve specific roles (bringing back secretaries, for example, to help with information filtering), training and suggestions on appropriate user information behaviours, and setting up policies and systems to enforce those behaviours (for instance an annual ‘communications budget’ that gets debited for each message you send within the company),” he says.
Closely tied to this, Davenport believes a great deal of work needs to be done if we are to develop better understanding of how knowledge workers go about their daily tasks and, in particular, of how they use information, knowledge and technology. “We’ve really had a revolution over the last few years in how knowledge workers work,” he says. “Yet we don’t really understand how they work on a daily basis – when and how they use their e-mail, voice mail, PDAs, Blackberrys, cell phones, portals and, perhaps, knowledge repositories. We need to do a lot of just observing in order to understand how this activity can be improved.”
This theme, together with the broader issue of how to embed knowledge in work processes, is one that Davenport will be exploring in greater depth when he makes one of six keynote presentations at KM Europe 2002, the third event in the combined conference/exhibition series. “I saw a recent Delphi study suggesting that KM experts agreed that the most important issue for knowledge management was to embed knowledge into key processes, so I feel that I at least have some support that it’s an important issue,” he says.
KM Europe itself takes place in London this November, and Davenport will be joined by Dave Snowden, Warren Bennis, Tom Stewart, Dan Holtshouse and Karl-Erik Sveiby in the keynote line-up, all of whom will also feature in ‘The knowledge’ in the countdown to the event. It is an extraordinary programme of speakers, and Davenport for one seems delighted to be taking part. “I think conferences are a great way to circulate any relatively new business idea,” he says. “They also help to create networks of practitioners and to stimulate thinkers to come up with new angles on a subject. I wouldn’t be creating new material for this conference if it didn’t exist!”
Tom Davenport is currently a consultant with Accenture. He can be contacted at:firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information on KM Europe 2002, and for details on how to register your attendance, visit www.kmeurope.com or call Henry Anson on +44 (0)20 8785 2700.