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  Professor Willie Ocasio
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Professor Willie Ocasio
Faculty Research: Willie Ocasio, MORS

Professor Willie Ocasio spotlights how corporate leaders gain attention

by Ed Finkel

Willie Ocasio doesn’t like to use the term “attention deficit disorder” to describe a challenge confronting the corporations he studies.

“Others have applied that term, and it’s a little too slick,” says Ocasio, the John L. and Helen Kellogg Distinguished Professor of Management and Organizations. He has been working on a series of theoretical and empirical papers on “attention management,” nomenclature he prefers to use.

“We live in a world where there’s so much information and so many competing data affecting the agenda of a corporation,” he says.

Fundamentally, an important role of management is to focus the attention of workers and managers on a limited number of issues and initiatives.”

To an extent, such attention management happens company-wide, although in some cases it’s more targeted, Ocasio says. “Sometimes large, complex organizations also have to differentiate and specialize their attention,” he says. “Some parts of the organization pay attention to certain things and other parts pay attention to others.”

Ocasio researches how communications and information systems help to manage attention. His framework breaks down into three areas: attention channels, language and political capital. By attention channels, he means the paths down which communications and information travel, which don’t always follow typical reporting relationships.

“Traditional reporting is clearly one way people communicate and focus attention, but there’s a lot more lateral communication and group-based interaction that is also quite consequential,” says Ocasio. “We have to look at other ways, outside of the reporting relationships, by which the attention and agenda of the organization is managed.”

In his recent publications examining General Electric Corp., Ocasio found a highly developed example of tight communication processes that, to some extent, pre-dated celebrity CEO Jack Welch. “The strategic agenda management process is very tightly coupled,” he says. “You have committees and a series of one-on-one meetings. All these activities are planned and regulated, and they build on each other. It allows the senior management to have a unified agenda that is then transmitted and communicated throughout the corporation.”

The language that corporations use also has a profound affect on attention management, Ocasio says. “Organizations develop very specialized vocabularies to understand and interpret the world,” he explains. “The vocabularies we use have consequences for what we pay attention to. The content side is critical.”

Under Welch, GE shifted its content away from a purely financial focus. “Numbers are always important, but you cannot have an effective organization where the agenda is purely managed by the numbers because you end up missing other indicators,” Ocasio says. “Here’s a CEO who was in place for 20 years, but every couple of years, you can shift the agenda of the organization through these communication channels and make sure that there’s consistent follow-through” in terms of content.

By political capital, Ocasio refers to how one’s status impacts that person’s ability to affect the agenda. “Some people will command more attention than others,” he says. “We have to think about who are the high-status players in the organization. Who gets invited to these [agenda-setting] meetings is quite consequential because it becomes a signal of political capital. It’s a way of distinguishing the organization’s up-and-coming stars. This is not necessarily tied to the formal reporting structure.”

This aspect connects to Ocasio’s points about channels and language in that political capital is derived partly from the ability to communicate effectively.
“If you can, in a sense, be a developer of the language and the culture, that becomes one main sources of political capital,” Ocasio says. “This perspective on power is distinct from traditional perspectives that talk more about the ability to control resources and to reward and punish.”

About Professor Ocasio
William Ocasio is the John L. and Helen Kellogg Distinguished Professor of Management and Organizations at the Kellogg School. His research links organizational politics, cognition, and culture with the study of strategic processes, corporate governance, and organizational and institutional change. These varied interests are brought together by a focus on explaining the determinants of organizational and industry attention and its consequences for stability and change in organizations and institutions.

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University