On the Complicated Economics of Attention Capital [Marketing]

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A Serious Consideration
In recent years, I’ve occasionally tackled an intriguing question: are distracting technologies partially to blame for our economy’s sluggish productivity numbers?

I’m often tentative about addressing this topic because I’m not an economist, and serious economists seem to have other explanations in mind (c.f., this column or this book).

This is why I was pleased when many of you forwarded me an article titled: “Is the economy suffering from the crisis of attention?” It’s written by Dan Nixon, a (serious) economist at the Bank of England.

In this article, Nixon explores the question I asked above. In doing so, he outlines two main “channels” through which the new technologies of the Network Age might impact economic productivity indicators:
  • Channel #1: These technologies can distract employees from their actual work. If you spend less time working, and more time skimming your Facebook newsfeed, you get less done.
  • Channel #2: These technologies can directly and permanently reduce the rate at which employees produce value using their brains. If your workflow requires you to constantly check emails, then your ability to create new value is dampened.
My suspicion is that the second channel is the main culprit. As I’ve argued before (c.f., this article I wrote for HBR.org), the front office IT revolution, in which we hooked knowledge workers together with high-speed communication networks, has been a mixed blessing.

We assumed that slow communication and inadequate information was a primary bottleneck for knowledge work. But reality proved more complicated. As we’re learning, extracting a good return on investments in “attention capital” (to use a term from Nixon) requires that you balance two things:
  • providing your employees’ brains timely access to the right information; and
  • providing these brains the right conditions under which to process this information effectively.
The front office IT revolution has focused almost exclusively on the first item from this list by prioritizing faster networks and more efficient communications tools — a movement that has reached an apex in our current age of ubiquitous mobile access to all people and all information.

And yet, even though we’ve pushed connectivity to daring new levels — a technological miracle built on numerous ingenious innovations — we haven’t become more productive. In fact, the better these tools get, the less productive we become! (See the above chart, which is from Nixon’s article).

A Tricky Balance
The problem, I conjecture, is that focusing exclusively on the first item from my list has generated a perverse counteraction: not only does it steal our attention from the equally important emphasis on optimizing cognitive operating conditions, it actually makes these conditions worse. The result: productivity stagnates.

I increasingly believe that it’s exactly this dynamic that makes it so hard to figure out how to make effective use of attention capital.

If we ignore the conditions in which we expect brains to produce value, we cannot expect productivity to increase. At the same time, if we focus only on enabling deep thinking, these brains might not have the right information to think about, also hurting productivity.

Figuring out this balance is perhaps the most pressing question concerning continued growth of the knowledge work sector.

Or maybe it’s not. Which brings me back to Dan Nixon. What I especially like about his article is that he ends with a call for serious experimentation to get to the bottom of these issues.
“Ideally we would want to observe directly how ‘attention capital’ and productivity vary across firms and over time,” he writes.

I agree. Writers like me have been pontificating cleverly on these issues for years, but real progress will require more data.

Hopefully there are some economists out there ready to take on Dan Nixon’s challenge.