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Strategy in an age of partial attention

September 3, 2005

There is an interesting post on Blackbeltjones.com about the problems of partial attention; being in meetings where 9/10 people aren’t really there because of the pervasive use of handhelds, Blackberries and their ilk.

It quotes a great thought from Donald Kluth that makes a distinction between the power user crackhead and the non-user.

“Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.”

There’s also a good quote from author Umberto Eco.

“I don’t even have an e-mail address. I have reached an age where my main purpose is not to receive messages.”

Technology is giving us enormous power to be more flexible and less disciplined, it’s freeing us from the shackles of pre-determined plans. Just think of teens using cellphones who’s plans change minute by minute. A teen could have made a plan to go to a movie on Saturday night, but because of the various constant conversations with friends, the end result is deciding 5 minutes before the movie starts, to play videogames instead.

Influx wonders if strategists have the luxury of “being at the bottom of things” and separating themselves from real-time thinking anymore. Instead do they need to create more flexible frameworks that can be adopted and changed as these conversations evolve? Do they
need new tools and new technologies to make this happen? Do these strategic tools need to be more like Wikis and less like the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments?

Going back to the main thrust of the Blackbeltjones posting, a discussion about the form factor of handhelds and if semi-private and private places should be established for these devices. There is no doubt that people are very comfortable responding through writing, rather than talking and email offers some significant satisfaction in feeling like you are getting rid of something, but it still is a one way conversation, unlike IM.

However, perhaps in the future we will all carry wireless devices that have space to answer our personal emails and another shared IM space where the real meeting takes place. This space can involve participants who aren’t physically in the room and would record everything. But, those silent meetings with “mutes” working together are sure going to be strange things to be a part of. On the plus side, it looks likely that ideas will be shaped by groups of individuals working collaboratively together, rather than responding to mandates from on high.

This is going to demand a whole new skill set from managers . The idea of co-operation and how it is going to be THE tool for future business advantage will be the subject of Howard Rheingold’s talk at Influx’s M-Squared event on September 27th.

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