The phrase The Long Tail was first coined by Chris Anderson in 2004 to describe the niche strategy of businesses, such as Amazon.com, which sells a large number of unique items in relatively small quantities. Whereas high-street bookshops are forced, by lack of shelf space, to concentrate on the most popular books, shown in the chart below in blue, retailers selling online can afford to service the minority interests shown below in orange. Interestingly, the volume of the minority titles exceeds that of the most popular, yet before the advent of online retailing, these needs would have been very hard to service.
The concept of The Long Tail fits well with the argument for bottom-up learning. Top-down efforts can only seek to address the most common (or, as we have seen, sometimes the most critical) of needs. It is simply not possible, given available resources, for l&d professionals to design and deliver an appropriate solution to satisfy every learning requirement in their organisations. Instead, when it comes to corporate learning and development, it is bottom-up learning that must address training’s long tail.
In the end it comes down to priorities – putting the effort in where the reward is going to be greatest. At risk of over-simplifying the issues involved, you could argue that the prioritisation process could be extended across all eight cells of our model, with the most generic and critical needs met top-down, through formalised courses. Less common/critical needs would be met by less structured proactive methods; if not, then at the point of need; if not, then through a process of structured reflection. As we extend into The Long Tail, bottom-up approaches come to the fore, starting with formal external programmes and continuing across the four contexts:
Tony Karrer argued that: “To play in The Long Tail, corporate learning functions will need to:
- find approaches that have dramatically lower production costs, near zero;
- look for opportunities to get out of the publisher, distributor role such as becoming an aggregator;
- focus on knowledge worker learning skills;
- help knowledge workers rethink what information they consume, how and why;
- focus on maximising the “return of attention” for knowledge workers rather than common measures today such as cost per learner hour.”
The Long Tail by Chris Anderson, Wired, October 2004.
Corporate Learning Long Tail and Attention Crisis by Tony Karrer, eLearning Technology blog, February 19, 2008.
Coming next in chapter 6: First they need the means
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