Social Computing in PLM and the Scarce Resource of Attention


What I learned this week … came from a post on titled The Attention Question in Social Business. I have struggled over this one for the past several days because the post puts forward a compelling and brilliant observation – but I can’t quite grasp the analogy when applied to my world – social computing in PLM.Jevons Paradox Example I woke up this morning with a clear thought in my head on it (look up “get a life” on Wikipedia, see my picture) and decided it was time to share my thoughts. So here they are.

Thanks to Brad Holtz of Cyon Research for pointing this one out via twitter, good find Brad!

Background – Jevons Paradox Applied to Social Business

I don’t know Jevon McDonald, but I thank him for a great post. Anything that makes you wrestle with a concept for 3 days and wake up with a new understanding has done what a good blogger should do – make you think. Hats off. Instead of trying to repeat his feat, I suggest that you read his post because it is well written and important. For my purposes, I am going to summarize two key points that will help set the backdrop for my discussion:

  • Jevons Paradox (1865) states (according to Wikipedia) that “technological progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource.” The example that sparked Jevons’ view was based on the increased consumption of coal because – counter intuitively – coal use was becoming more efficient. Instead of using less coal, more people were using it so the decrease in consumption from efficiency was offset by increased usage. It’s pretty profound, and you can probably think of lots of examples in your own life, with energy being the easiest one for me to grasp.
  • Jevon’s Principal (2009) The post makes a brilliant observations that in business, “attention is the scarce resource.” The post points out that social computing increases the efficiency of our attention (read the post for examples). The post then goes on to say that “We may be falling for the fallacy that enables Jevons’ Paradox, and by doing so we may be pushing people to the limit of their capability, even though we intend the opposite.
  • OK, my confession is that I just made the “Jevon’s Principal” name up, but I think it is cool that “Jevon McDonald” is writing about “William Stanley Jevons.” Sorry.

My Thoughts – Attention as the Scarce Resource in “Social Business”

First, I love the term “social business” which Jevon uses in his post. Right from the start, it lets everybody know we aren’t talking about catching up with old high school pals or college roommates on social networking – we are talking about business. We are 100% in alignment.

The quote above about pushing people beyond their limits really struck a chord with me. The companies I speak to are primarily manufacturers, and they are running lean. I mean really lean. They don’t have extra resources available, and we are facing an engineering shortage in the US. Am I promoting the use of social computing in PLM which is going to push them over the brink!? Clearly, companies are concerned that social networking can be a distraction. Many large companies have blocked social networking sites like Facebook. But I draw a strong distinction between personal networking and the use of social computing to improve product innovation, product development, and engineering. But I can’t dismiss the Jevons-Jevon analogy because I know he is talking about social computing for business. And then I uncovered the flaw in the analogy.

The Flaw in the Analogy – Productivity
What I struggled with was the “so what?” of using up peoples’ attention. Of course we are all busy and attention is scarce, but what are the real implications of using up peoples’ attention? The problem of course, is that they don’t get their jobs done. But that is where the analogy breaks down, or at least the conclusion breaks down (I am still struggling with that one). Either way, here is the point that I woke up with this morning – using more coal, and using it more efficiently, resulting in greater levels of productivity. The observation wasn’t that we were using more coal and getting less out of it, we were using more coal and getting more productivity per ton of coal. So turning back to the scarce resource of attention – is it really a problem that we are consuming the use of attention if it leads to greater levels of productivity? No. In fact, that is what we are trying to do. It is another paradox. Of course we don’t want to use up our scarce resource of peoples’ attention – but we do want to maximize it. And social computing helps maximize the productivity of our scarce resource.

Final Thoughts for Manufacturers

Here are my final thoughts, I realize this is getting long. Don’t focus on whether you are using up attention, focus on whether you are using attention efficiently, and using it to add business value. Pay attention to social computing to make sure it is focused on business results, considering:

  • Social computing in the context of business provides increased productivity
  • Social networking of the “old school chums” variety is probably a non-value added use of attention

The issue is maximizing the business value from the scarce resource. The paradox and the analogy are important, but if you don’t consider productivity it can lead you to a very wrong conclusion. In fact, the Wikipedia definition of Jevons Paradox points out that it “ignores other benefits from increased efficiency.”Aren’t those exactly the benefits we are trying to achieve with social computing and social business?

So those are my thoughts on social computing and the Jevon’s-Jevons analogy, I hope you found it interesting. Who knew? I didn’t, if you did let us know about it.