Chief Attention Officer?

The case for attention

Striking a balance between focus and attention is critical to both personal and organisational survival. Focusing on the erratic lorry driver ahead, may blind you to the fast approaching speeding motorcyclist. Focus is important, particularly once a threat or opportunity appears. But we live in a world where threats and opportunities come in unrecognisable forms with increasing frequency. As mentioned in my previous article, situational awareness trumps strategy. What is happening now and how we deal with it is job number one.

Thus organisations need to develop the ability to pay attention. You might think of it as diffuse focus. You are not looking for anything in particular, but you are sensitive to weak signals that might be indicative of something important. The US military has an approach called OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide and Act). In the theatre of war, detecting the enemy, comrades or valuable resources requires attention more so than focus.

As organisation’s transition to the post-industrial age, they will need to shift the emphasis from focus to attention. In the industrial era, we had a strong sense of the threats and opportunities associated with our market arena. Again, in an increasingly volatile and uncertain world, organisations have no idea what lies ahead. Thus highlighting that we are now in a post-strategy era.


A living organism is defined by its tendency to move towards opportunity and away from threats, whilst conserving energy. I believe organisations will be more likely to succeed if they behave like a living organism. Such organisations might be considered super-resilient. They thrive on uncertainty and volatility, unlike their arthritic competitors that still operate as industrial era factories.

So clearly attention is critical to being a super-resilient organisation. Given that attention is fundamentally about data management, this presents an opportunity for IT leaders to move centre stage in respect of their organisation’s transformation.

Attention channels

Clearly every online transaction with the outside world is part of the organisation’s attention map. Increasingly so is the data emanating from devices embedded in the organisation’s products and services.

Newsfeeds, social media and purchased data feeds serve to add clarity to your organisation’s understanding of what is happening. But to what extent is your organisation able to capture the observations made by front line staff. How easy is it to collate the observations of sales executives and share that intelligence with marketing and product development? To what extent can the unstructured observations of all employees be integrated into a consolidated attention map?

The imminent release of a rival’s new offering will naturally set off alarm bells. But to what extent is your organisation sensitive to vectors that may have significant impact down the line? Does your attention architecture embrace the Pestle forces, ie?

• Political

• Economic

• Social

• Technology

• Legal

• Environmental

Can your organisation base its survivability on the hope that somebody in the leadership team has a subscription to the Economist?

Data as capital

Attention is ultimately the gathering and integration of signals. And signals are of course data. Data is the natural domain of the IT function. But I think there has been inadequate focus at the value-creating end of the data chain. Admittedly business intelligence, and specifically machine learning, suggests that IT leaders are not simply data storage and security experts. But the emergence of the Chief Data Officer is indicative that the leadership team do not perceive their IT leader as the natural owner of data, an important emerging asset class.

I am uncomfortable with this CDO role, not least because of its attention on the unrefined end of the data chain. Like crude oil, there is no intrinsic value in data. Its value emerges though refinement. Information / insight is a well understand derivative of data. Attention, less so.

IT leaders of course must deal with the mundane yet crucial aspects of data storage, security, privacy and transparency. That is not going away. However you will be perceived as strategically relevant if you can architect a service offering to the organisation that positions the IT function as the organisation’s listening station, a private variant of GCHQ perhaps?

Deep talent analytics

The war for talent is becoming more acute. This is somewhat ironic given the onslaught of automation. Attracting and retaining the most cognitively productive people will be key to the organisation’s success. This requires the Personnel / HR / Talent function to step up. Talent management will become increasingly data driven. And deep-talent analytics will be at the heart of retaining your best people.

Those IT leaders pursuing a career path towards increasing strategic relevance would be wise to work closely with the HR function.

Enterprise data – Systems integration

The idea of an attention-oriented organisation is not controversial, unless you think Nature has got it wrong. The question is how do you migrate from your organisation’s current situation where there is a distinct lack of data integration?

Whilst paying attention is job number one for the organisation, building a coherent and cohesive enterprise data model is job number one for the IT function. As you well know, this is no trivial task, given the disparate IT systems in operation in your organisation. In well-established organisations, this will require significant spend and disruption.

IT leaders have known of this issue for as long as it has been an issue. However the request for a technology overhaul has fallen on deaf ears because the perceived business value did not stack up against the likely costs. I believe that repositioning yourself as the Chief Attention Officer, along with using the argument that I have made in respect of the importance of paying attention, may well help you acquire the budget needed for this long overdue integration exercise. If your senior executives don’t buy this, then I suggest you jump ship or reach for a life jacket.