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A Matter Of Attention & Focus

IT groups need to look beyond their current “next right answer” technology (whether it’s blogs, wikis, RSS or presence-enabled everything) and understand the softer issues related to the ability for users to optimally (not exclusively) manage their own attention and focus on current activities while maintaining a sense of situational awareness to the world around them.

There are three significant variables in play as the layers within information and communication, and the boundaries between them, interact at different rates of change: attention, focus and iteration cycle.

Activities in the forefront zone have the highest focus for users. This means that users' attention is also at its highest level and they spend the most time monitoring changes in those activities.  At the other extreme are horizon items. These have the lowest level of focus, the least level of attention and the least amount of time checking for new information and communication channels (refer to Figure 1 below).


Figure 1: Attention, Focus & Iteration Cycles

What’s important about Figure 1 is that publishers (users or systems transmitting information to users through various communication channels) may require more attention, focus and iteration cycles from the users. Indeed, there may be an outright conflict between the publishers and users about this, with no good remediation method available other than to interrupt users and have them triage the situation. This does not mean that the disruption is without just cause. Oftentimes work events necessitate a re-prioritization of work activities (e.g., a breaking deal, a security event, a customer demand or a negotiation breakdown with a partner).

When thinking of communication and context zones, it is often assumed that we need to focus on methods that are more narrow and direct to the user. This would be a mistake. Users need to be exposed to different categories of communication.  I categorize communications as "broadcast", "targeted" and "personal. Broadcast communication is geared for consumption by mass audiences (e.g., corporate news). Group communication is targeted at specific clusters of users (e.g., by community, by team, by role). Personal communication often reflects the conversations representative of an employee’s social network.  These dimensions can also be viewed in terms of context zones (refer to Figure 2).


Figure 2: Broadcast, Targeted

It is important that a publish/subscribe model not cause users to “tune out” of other conversations and information sources within the enterprise by over-filtering. Communication dualities need to be maintained. Being exposed (in some managed manner) to broadcast and group communication enables users to establish and maintain a legitimate peripheral participation (LPP) relationship with co-workers. Such relationships might not be sustainable if users were overly narrow in their communication channels and information sources. They risk being perceived as “out of the loop”. Conversely, it is important to have narrow pipelines of communication through which information can flow that is specifically in context and relevant to current activities and interest areas. 

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