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Accenture Institute for Strategic Change

The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business T. H. Davenport, J. C. Beck (May 2001). Also available in E-Book format

Working Knowledge: How Organizations Manage What They Know T. H. Davenport, L. Prusak (December 1997) Also available in E-Book format

Mission Critical: Realizing the Promise of Enterprise Systems T. H. Davenport (February 2000)

Process Innovation: Reengineering Work Through Information Technology Thomas H. Davenport (October 1992)

Mastering Information Management D. A. Marchand (Editor), T. H. Davenport (Editor)

Information Ecology: Mastering the Information and Knowledge Environment T. H. Davenport, et al (June 1997)


"A Meeting of the Minds: An Interview with Peter Drucker" Peter Drucker and Tom Davenport discuss the state of business and information management. T. H. Davenport. September 15, 1997. CIO Magazine.

Cut Us Some Slack.” Unless you're careful, you could end up using technology to increase your employees' efficiency while hurting productivity. T. H. Davenport. March 2001. Darwin Magazine.

From Data to Knowledge” We continue to gather more and more information, but what are we doing with it? T. H. Davenport. April 1, 1999. CIO Magazine.

 Know What You Know” Book Excerpt: Working Knowledge. Learn how valuable corporate knowledge is acquired, created, bought, sold and bartered. T. H. Davenport, L. Prusak. February 15, 1998. CIO Magazine.

Known Evils” Repent and save your company from its witless ways. T. H. Davenport. June 15, 1997. CIO Magazine.

Let's Get Personal” You've spent your career organizing your company's information. When will you get around to organizing your own? T. H. Davenport. October 1, 1998. CIO Magazine.

 The Bigger Picture” Given the state of change in the business environment, it can be easy to lose sight of our real goals. This new book asks us what we want from information and provides a sane approach to how to get it. T. H. Davenport. May 15, 1997. CIO Magazine.

The Eyes Have It” These 10 principles will help you attract and keep your customers' attention. T. H. Davenport. September 1, 1999. CIO Magazine.

The Future of Knowledge Management” Effective knowledge management will hinge on people, not technology. T. H. Davenport. December 15, 1995/January 1, 1996. CIO Magazine.

The Last Big Thing” The hype behind knowledge management may be quieting, but its long-term value is something to shout about. T. H. Davenport. November 1, 2000. CIO Magazine.

The Laws of Nature” It's not enough to use the hottest technologies to build your company's information systems. You have to think about how people will use them. T. H. Davenport. December 2000. Darwin Magazine.

Two Cheers for the Virtual Office” T. H. Davenport, K. Pearlson. MIT Sloan Management Review. Summer 1998.


We live in an attention economy. At this point in history, capital, labor, and information are all in plentiful supply. Computer processing power increases by leaps and bounds, but the processing power of the human brain stays the same. Telecommunications bandwidth is not a problem; human bandwidth is. The implications for business are dramatic. Through research and simple observation I’ve become convinced that attention is the scarce resource in today’s economy. Education and learning activities, and elearning in particular, are major consumers of attention. How will they compete? And what are the implications for knowledge workers already struggling to divide their attention between their worklife and homelife, while also being told that “anytime, anywhere learning” is the wave of the future?

The Attention Crisis

Attention is at a premium partly because information has becoming less expensive for many, many years. By one analysis, in a single edition of the Sunday New York Time has more facts than anyone in the world could have commanded in, say, the 15th century. In 1472, for example, the best university library in the world, at Queen’s College in Cambridge, had 199 books. Today more than 300,000 new books spew out of worldwide presses every year. The web includes well over two billion pages, a large chunk of which can’t be found even with the best search engine. (And let’s not forget 11,339 distinct electronic databases, up from just 301 in 1975).

It’s not just codified information that overwhelms us. The typical viewer can choose from 80% more new feature films today than were released in 1990. And every new product or service requires attention to comprehend and consume. The average grocery store stocks about 40,000 different items with roughly 15,000 new grocery products introduced each year. Think of the business problem: in this environment, how can your new product become one of the only 150 SKUs the average household buys each year? The problem is not only in reaching consumers; it affects business-to-business and internal management as well. Today’s manager can, with just a few mouse-clicks, call up more external information than any of us can ever fully absorb—all while dealing with increasing numbers of phone calls, faxes, and mail.

Attention and Learning

Learning has always been a major consumer of attention for well-educated white-collar workers. Most of them have spent 17 or more years engaged in more-or-less full-time learning. Unfortunately, many of us had our attention directed elsewhere during our educational careers. Sure, we can still read, write, think, and do a bit of research, but we have forgotten most of the specific information we were supposed to learn in school. It didn’t help that we went through much of our formal educations at the same time we were going through childhood and adolescence, when our attention was focused largely on having fun with our friends, our changing bodies, the opposite sex, and so on. It also didn’t help that few of our teachers were trained in how to get and keep our attention—and we know from experience that they rarely figured it out on their own.

Since much of our formal educations didn’t take, and because the world is changing all the time, we must all undergo at least moderate levels of workplace learning. Yet the workplace is hardly a domain in with plenty of slack attention lying around. The increasing speed and complexity of our business lives has become a ravenous user of our attention as well. Decades of global competition have produced lean organizations, very high customer expectations, short cycle times, and a need for just-in-time everything. As a result, business schools are finding it increasingly difficult to get executives to come on campus for extended executive education stays. My anecdotal experience suggests that supervisors are putting more and more pressure on subordinates to justify time spent away from work in education and training.

Into this environment comes a set of technologies for elearning—ostensibly a solution to the work/life balance problems faced by many individuals in organizations today. Forget travel—learn at your desk! Even better, learn at home! eLearning promises greater efficiency in acquiring learning, a closer match between the time of need and the provision of learning, and the power of interactive multimedia to get and keep the attention of the learner. It seems to be a match made in heaven among corporate objectives, work/life balance, and attention.

No Free Lunch

Despite the potential benefits of elearning, it’s not easy to construct an environment in which people meet their learning objectives online while paying attention, getting their work done, and living fulfilling family and personal lives. Several aspects of the attention environment for elearning are difficult—but important—to face:

      Interactive multimedia is appealing in principle—but not always in reality. Development of high-quality elearning is expensive, and the skills to do it well are still somewhat rare. As a result, much elearning is not-very-multi-media and not-very-interactive. In fact, I’ve seen an increasing amount of elearning that amounts to PowerPoint without the human speaker, which isn’t very attention-getting or attention-keeping at all.

      The use of elearning is generally unsupervised by any instructor or training professional; this is one way it achieves economic efficiencies. However, it also leaves the learner free to divert his or her attention to the many other possible uses available at the desktop: other work tasks, the telephone, the Internet, today’s snail mail…

      While the consumption of elearning may take place somewhat closer in time to the user’s need than traditional education, much of it is as unrelated to specific work needs as typical classroom training. Only a small fraction of elearning qualifies as “performance support,” available at the time of need.

      Some types of elearning are much more successful at getting and keeping attention than others. “Performance simulation,” for example, which offers a simulated work environment, a compelling goal for the learner to achieve, and online coaching, seems to qualify as “learning by doing.” And a National Training Laboratories study found that content communicated through “learning by doing” was more than three times more likely to be retained than traditional computer-based instruction.

Given these issues, firms need to think carefully about whether their existing elearning initiatives are actually getting and keeping the attention of their employees. If the content of such initiatives isn’t being attended to, all of the “efficiencies” provided by online learning technologies will be for naught.

Over the Top

Another concern about elearning is that given the ability to receive it anywhere, job pressures will lead employees to begin doing it at home, further disrupting their work/life balance. It’s unlikely that supervisors will actually force employees to consume elearning materials on their own time—that would probably be illegal under most circumstances—but the power of suggestion and informal pressures might well encourage it. Some employees may even choose to take their elessons home simply because there is less competition for their attention away from the workplace.

But while home might actually be a fairly effective place to be an “e-student,” most employees are already highly burdened at home with work-related activity. In a recent Accenture survey, for example, the majority of white-collar workers stated that not only did they check voice and email messages at home, they even did so on vacation. An Institute for the Future study in 2000 suggested that 60% of white-collar workers feel “overwhelmed” by the amount of information they receive. Extending the information flow homeward through elearning applications is likely to make the situation much worse.

If you’re an employee of an organization and you feel you can learn better at home than at work, more power to you. But be careful about letting elearning—or any other work for that matter—extend too much into your already scarce personal life. If you’re a manager, be cognizant that time at home is sacred for your employees. And if you encourage your people to take a dose of online learning at home, make sure that it’s undertaken during normal work hours.

Attending to Attention

Regardless of where you take your elearning, it’s all for naught unless a high proportion of brain cells are engaged. If you’re concerned about the relationship between elearning and attention—and you should be—there are several steps you can take to address the issue.

First, get some sense of where the attention of your employees is going today, and how much of it goes to elearning. John Beck, my co-author for the book The Attention Economy, has developed a tool for measuring attention allocation called the AttentionScape. It’s a quick, subjective analysis of how an individual or team has allocated its attention over a given time period. You can see how attention is measured on the website for the book at Try asking employees who’ve just gone through an elearning exercise to map out their own attention for the day. If they’ve spent a lot of time online, but the content of the exercise didn’t really register on their attention screens, you’ve got a problem.

Second, you need to understand what else is competing for your target audience’s attention and the AttentionScape can also be useful here. If people are worried about how they’ll survive your firm’s economic downturn, for example, they may not be very receptive to even the best elearning experience. If you find out that a non-productive topic is taking up a lot of your audience’s brain cells, you can try to dispel the issue by directly addressing rumors or fears.

Your elearning targets’ attention can be protected in other ways. Some are technical, but most involve policies. There may be technologies you can employ to filter out unwanted communications. More likely to be effective, however, are policies and suggestions that help people manage their own personal information environments. Suggest, for example, that checking of email and voice mail while involved in a learning experience may be counterproductive.

Finally, our research suggested that some forms of information are much more attention-getting than others, and you may be able to employ these strategies in your online curriculum design. We found that people pay attention to information that is personalized, concise, emotionally evocative, and from a trustworthy source. So try to create elearning programs that have those characteristics.

We’re only beginning to understand how elearning and other information-intensive activities are affected by the growing shortage of attention. Those astute individuals who practice attention-conscious elearning are bound to identify a host of new ideas for how to direct attention where it is most needed, and to protect it from unwanted distractions. eLearning practitioners must realize that, like everyone else, they are competing for their audience’s attention. Those whose elearning efforts are not attended to will fail. Those who are good at getting and keeping attention will be successful.

Tom Davenport is Director of the Accenture Institute for Strategic Change and a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Babson College. He has co-authored or edited nine books, including the first books on business process reengineering, knowledge management, and enterprise systems. His latest book—coauthored with John Beck—is The Attention Economy (Harvard Business School Press), which describes how individuals and organizations can manage “the new currency of business.” He has a Ph.D. from Harvard University in organizational behavior and has taught at the Harvard Business School, the University of Chicago, Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, and the University of Texas at Austin. He has also directed research centers at Ernst & Young, McKinsey & Company, and CSC Index.


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