Fighting Off Distractions In Today’s Attention Economy

Sam Masri

titlepending FBO ID --- Image by © Bernd Vogel/CorbisAfter two days of meetings and innovation discussions with one of our customers in SAP’s state-of-the-art facilities in Walldorf, Germany, I thought it was time to hop in the hotel pool. For the first time in a long time, I decided to completely switch off and leave my phone back in my room – a decision that proved to be very wise.

After doing a few laps and getting out to relax by the poolside, it felt quite odd that I was the only one doing nothing. Everyone else was busy on their phones – which is what I’m usually doing. I picked up a magazine, just to get busy with something, and a Barclays-sponsored article in the Economist’s Intelligent Life grabbed my attention. Well, it had to, the title was “The Attention Economy”!

Statistics in the article quantified just how distracted we are in today’s digitized economy and the impact that has on our productivity and, more importantly, our creativity. The numbers were mind-boggling. The author did a great job of offering practical tips on how we can increase our attention span in an increasingly distracting world. I started drawing parallels between how we should defend our attention from the forces of distraction in an Attention Economy, and how SAP is trying to defend businesses from the forces of complexity in a digital economy. I know, it sounds overly complex, but it gets clearer in a second.

The article outlined how distracted we’ve become by the ubiquitous access to smartphones and the sheer volume of “seeing, reading, downloading, syncing, sending, submitting, posting, pinning, sharing, uploading, updating, commenting, tagging, rating, liking, loving, up-voting, starring, favoriting, bookmarking, or re-anything” we do in one single day. Of course, smartphones are a distraction from other distractions, and we might think these short on-screen/off-screen quick peeks are too small to matter. Well, we’re wrong. We have smaller reserves of useful attention nowadays than we think – useful meaning it’s enough to get us in the flow needed to be productive and creative.

Apparently, every time we get interrupted, it takes our brains 23 minutes to get back in that flow. Today, we get interrupted every 11 minutes! In the UK, an average smartphone user checks the phone 221 times a day. In most cases these are distractions we sign up for, thinking “it will only take a second,” and that we probably can multitask when we do. Every time we do that, our present IQ drops by 10 points on average – 15 for men and five for women.

Can technology actually help us reclaim our attention spans?

This is an “epidemic of overwhelm” where the human brain has never been asked to process as much data as it is today. Ironically, yet logically, the article goes on to argue that technology will help us reclaim our attention from other technological distractions, proposing attention management applications like RescueTime and others. To me, being conscious of the magnitude of the problem is good enough to actively start managing it. Attention is becoming a scarce commodity, and along with it the productivity and creativity engine of the modern economy.

Reading the article, it was impossible not to compare it with the challenges our business customers are increasingly facing. The same way distraction has made our brains grow obese, complexity in the business world has made our machines grow dumber. The underlying cause is exactly the same: the massive volume and complex nature of the data these machines are now asked to process. Think structured vs. unstructured, think IoT, think convergence of operational and transactional data. The list goes on. Machines are not keeping up, they’re distracted by having to process tons of data, and their users are unable to direct attention to offering real-time insight that informs decision-making in a meaningful way. Businesses are effectively running blind.

Helping businesses simplify their distracted machines

I’m now working on behalf of a few customers to deliver on digital transformation mandates that will help them adapt to today’s digital economy. The approach we’re taking comprises a number of components that come together with the aim of digitizing the workforce, suppliers, customer experience, and (when relevant) things. At the heart of this approach is the digital core.

It’s at this point customers always ask “what do you mean by a digital core? We’ve always been running digital!” To me, the concept of the Attention Economy gives the perfect allegorical response: You’re never digital in your core unless your systems are fully attentive. This means your business processes are simplified and your machines are not distracted by the struggle of processing a massive amount of data. Instead they process data in real time to focus attention on analyzing and providing timely insights – the stuff that matters!

Just like our brain’s collective attentions are the engine of productivity and innovation in human society, the digital core has become the engine for business transformation in today’s complex economy. In a recent customer discussion, one of our innovation leads was showing how the design plans of an entire city were digitized, 3D-visualized, and stored in a computing system. The system then provides the ability to drill down to the most granular level – street level, construction site level, even to an air conditioning unit level. It also provides alerts when a unit needs to be fixed or replaced, triggering the dispatch of a maintenance team or placing a procurement order – all while the controller monitors progress in real time as the end-to-end process unfolds.

With today’s digital capabilities and a pragmatic transformation approach, what seemed impossible not too long ago has become a reality. Unfortunately, this will never be realized unless we become conscious of the need to transform and be aware of the possibilities such digital transformation can unlock. “We may not care about simplicity before complexity, but we should give our lives for what simplicity can do after complexity.”

Now, try to drop that phone for more than 11 minutes, disconnect, get in the flow, and come up with something creative.

For a quick overview of where complexity comes from and how to address it, see our research Executive Summary: Taming Organisational Complexity — Start at the Top.

Sam Masri

About Sam Masri

Sam Masri is the Chief Operating Officer for SAP in Canada. He leads SAP Canada's strategy, operations, and innovation teams including solution, value and industry advisory, with the core mandate of helping SAP customers leverage digital innovations to become intelligent enterprises.