Attensa unlocks knowledge with RSS

Beyond e-mail: feeding information to the enterprise, Web 2.0-style

Attensa has a straightforward mission: To get the right information to the right people at the right time. Although Attensa's goal may not be entirely original, Eric Hayes -- who co-founded the company in 2005 -- believes his company can get it right on all three counts.

Attensa's software works by pushing RSS or managed Web feeds to specific users and groups behind the firewall, allowing knowledge workers in the enterprise to cherry-pick just the info they want. On the back end, the Linux-based Attensa Feed Server gathers feeds in the background, and gives IT administrators control of where those feeds go. Meanwhile, on the client side, Attensa has software for Windows, Mac, and BlackBerry, plus plug-ins for Outlook, Lotus SameTime IM, and others. Conveniently, the server takes care of syncing, so that if a user reads something on a BlackBerry, that same item is marked as having been read in Outlook as well.

Behind this basic infrastructure is AttentionStream, the real substance of Attensa's IP. AttentionStream prioritizes content based on a user's behavior, pushing that information to the top of the reader. "AttentionStream has the ability to intelligently and automatically pull information that is important to the user when they want it and push away information that isn’t important when they don’t want it," Hayes says. (InfoWorld Test Center review Mike Heck put Attensa Feed Server to the test last November and was duly impressed.)

The algorithm that accomplishes this works by gathering both explicit data (from a survey or poll) and implicit data (gathered by watching how, when, and for how long a user interacts with content). The AttentionStream Technology creates a statistical profile based on what feeds a user goes to first, how many articles he or she reads in that feed, and how long the user spends reading an article of a given length. It also looks for context clues, such as keywords or author name, to determine the kind of content that is most important to the individual, and pushes similar content to the top.

Attensa's big advantage, according to Hayes, is its capability to match content to context. Information can originate from various sources, including portals, wikis, or blogs. But instead of being delivered to an inbox as an undifferentiated attachment, it shows up in the user's client of choice, in a clearly labeled, customizable folder that supplies the context.

For Hayes, then, e-mail is dead, at least for anything beyond a one-to-one electronic conversation. "With e-mail, all information comes into the inbox, and it all demands an equal level of our attention. As a result, communications don't flow," Hayes says.

Stagnant communications are problematic because knowledge typically resides inside the heads of individuals scattered throughout an organization. According to Hayes, that dispersed knowledge can be leveraged only when it's shared with other members of the greater workgroup. "It boils down to finding out who knows what and finding technical peers. That is the Valhalla of the whole thing," Hayes says.

There are also less lofty uses for Attensa. Setting up feeds from the HR department to an HR folder on the user's desktop, for instance, would quickly surface critical information.

Despite its demonstrable benefits, Attensa has had its challenges selling to big business. According to Hayes, enterprise-level companies don't usually talk to small startups such as Attensa about something as important as information sharing. "But our technology is so obviously superior that we are the people to talk to," he says.

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