Saturday, March 15, 2008

Attention Work VS. Knowledge Work

My previous essay suggesting the concept 'attention work' (blogpost here), refers to " ‘attention workers’, a subset of knowledge workers." I no longer think attention workers are a subset of knowledge workers.

'Attention workers' generate and broker attention professionally.

'Knowledge workers' generate and broker knowledge professionally.

"Attention is the cognitive process of selectively concentrating on one aspect of the environment while ignoring other things." Attention is used for gathering and constructing knowledge. It is not the same as knowledge. It is valuable, because it is a prerequisite for making decisions. It sets priorities and selects decision alternatives. People are willing to spend resources on influencing decisions on allocation of resources. Attention is money.

Attention workers and knowledge workers have different mindsets. A scientist is a knowledge worker. An advertiser is an attention worker. Journalists are mostly attention workers, but can in some cases be knowledge workers, for example if they work for publications that are mainly financed by subscription fees, such as highly prices newsletters.

The traditional attention business model of the mass media:
  1. Control a carrier of information.
  2. Select a target group.
  3. GENERATE ATTENTION: Gather target group attention to your carrier by transmitting information that is interesting for the target group, e.g. journalism.
  4. BROKER ATTENTION: Sell the target group attention to other actors by charging them for using your carrier for transmitting their information, e.g. ads / advertisers. By transmitting ads mixed with journalism through the carrier, the ads will share the attention with the journalism.
  5. The money you earn on the ads pays the cost of managing your carrier, and the cost of managing the organization of attention-gatherers, e.g. journalists, that gather and maintain target group attention to your carrier.

Attention work always existed, and was always important. In this age of innovation, there are more decisions to be made, and more concepts to select between. Attention work is now more important and potentially prosperous than ever. It deserves new focus and new approaches.

The concept of attention work may be constructive for creating mutual understanding between different types of attention workers who traditionally are polarized, e.g. journalists vs PR, or journalists vs lobbyists. They are different players on the same field - the communication system that influences the flows of attention in the larger ecosystem.

When we buy cars we go to car sales people. We don't need to trust them with our lives, or believe everything they say. But regardless of what we think of this or that, they are important for the existence of cars.

The notion of journalists as actors in an attention economy - attention workers - may support journalism in discussing its role as a stakeholder in society, an actor in the innovation ecosystem. It offers a constructive alternative to the picture of journalism as an objective observer and non-actor, which in my opinion is quite challenging to defend, because it is tricky to put the finger on what is 'objective' in social interactions. The notion of 'objective journalism' makes it difficult to discuss the incentives for interaction between journalism and other actors, and therefore difficult to merge the discussions of new business models for journalism and journalism mission and ethics.

One might think that knowledge workers and attention workers are friends, because knowledge and attention are close, but that's not the case. Scientists and engineers are knowledge workers. Journalists in ad-based media and PR people are attention workers. They don't always appreciate each other. Knowledge workers often find attention workers 'sensationalist' or 'hot air balloons', while attention workers find knowledge workers 'lost in space' or 'academic' (a politer way of saying 'lost in space'. Calling academics academic is also an efficient way of dismissing them without getting into lengthy over-principled discussions).

Knowledge and attention is like intelligence and smartness. It rarely blends. Intelligent people want to show off, smart people know when to look stupid. Knowledge and intelligence are a match. But you need to be smart to direct attention. Those who manage to combine intelligence with smartness, have knowledge and get attention, can become very powerful people.

Attention workers are key players in the attention economy. The modern economy is an innovation economy, and the innovation economy is an attention economy. The value of attention is going up, so there should be a good market for attention work.

The problem for journalism today is this: attention has become worth more, but the traditional journalism business models for brokering attention are failing. Controlling proprietary carriers of information - such as TV, radio or distribution of printed paper - is no longer the key. The Internet is both the problem, and the key to new business models.

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