A posting on Joi Ito’s blog caught my attention given my interest in real-time collaboration. “Continuous Partial Attention”, or CPA. The term has been attributed to Linda Stone, founder of Microsoft Research’s Virtual Worlds Group. It seems that the term is about a year old but has gained attention recently. Other references can be found at Smartmobs as well as in a posting by Stowe Boyd and in an older article by Henry Jenkins that appeared in the MIT Technology Review , where he wrote:
"Stone argues that there is a growing tendency for people to move through life, scanning their environments for signals, and shifting their attention from one problem to another. This process has definite downsides — we never give ourselves over fully to any one interaction. It is like being at a cocktail party and constantly looking over the shoulders of the person you are talking with to see if anyone more interesting has arrived. Yet, it is also adaptive to the demands of the new information environment, allowing us to accomplish more, to sort through competing demands, and to interact with a much larger array of people."
“Partial attention” is not new. Workers have always divided their attention across multiple tasks while scanning and listening to the world around them to detect something that would influence or impact their plans and activities. In fact, partial attention is ingrained within the human condition. At home or at work, in all aspects of our lives, we balance our efforts across numerous demands and expectations, reacting to situations based on diverse levels of precise and imprecise information (both verbal and written).
So what is new and different about CPA? “Continuous” is the key word (the tipping point). In the good old days – before the Internet, Wi-Fi, cell phones, SMS and PDAs – the variety, volume and velocity of information channels were disjointed and fragmented. Barriers impeded our ability to glance around as if everything we needed to know existed in one big room. Today, pervasive and much more persistent connectivity enables discovery and reception of multiple streams of information that keep our mental models current, but at a price. Being in a “wired state of mind” means dealing with constant alerts, constant notifications, constant distraction and constant interruption. We find ourselves continually scanning, collecting, filtering noise to identify signals that might re-prioritize our work and life based on what’s new or more interesting or more relevant or more whatever (fill in the blank with any excuse).
On the one hand, CPA can enable very nimble, sense-and-respond organizations. This is perhaps best exemplified in such practices as “swarming” and “smart mobs”. CPA can be leveraged in terms of dynamic, virtual teaming and community practices that are intriguing from a business perspective (and a work style that organizational strategists need to acknowledge and learn to harness).
But many of us are not adept at this type of hyperactive workplace environment where social networks drive work practices. New competencies and relationship models are needed – something that HR groups, managers and workers themselves need to recognize and develop.
A workforce that has historically been “unwired” is familiar (and comfortable to some extent) with disjoint and fragmented workplace connections. This fosters an environment that intentionally or unintentionally creates CPA-free zones for listening and contemplation. Workers engage around a particular set of problems or opportunities rather than be disturbed by CPA. Without anticipating organizational and behavioral issues, introducing additional communication, collaboration and information channels can be very disruptive (even threatening). Strategists need to allocate and prioritize the time and resources necessary to incent workers to change behaviors and adopt new workplace models. Workers need to take control of a CPA-centric workplace – balancing it by being offline to avoid being overwhelmed by it. Workers that fail to adjust will lose productivity and find that they are unable to sense-and-respond effectively within the cacophony that now surrounds them.
For workers already skilled at CPA, particularly younger generations, their challenge is understanding the importance of disengaging from the collective – to knowingly (and with purpose) un-plug themselves at the right time in order to listen, concentrate, reflect, understand and reach closure on some thought – to be totally absorbed in a particular interaction, dialog, relationship, source of information or work activity.
CPA is neither good nor bad – it depends on circumstance and how much someone cedes to it control over their work and lifestyle. Left unmanaged, CPA can become a disorder (perhaps someday this will be categorized as a compulsive addition of sorts), creating dysfunctional workers, teams and communities. Leveraged properly, it can leader to greater agility that can improve personal and business performance (and eventually, a more adaptive organization). Workers that master CPA will gain a new type of peripheral vision, enabling them to gracefully transition from one activity to another based on urgency, value or simply because a signal is received from someone in their inner circle (and that relationship compels their attention – making CPA an interesting "nervous system" metaphor for those looking at virtual and far flung teams as well as community strategies).