The Long Tail: How it Applies to the Learning and Performance Field.

Chris Anderson, editor of Wired Magazine, has a new book—The Long Tail—another inspired insight ready to rear up like a tsunami and sweep indiscriminately over everything.

The insight from the book and from the original article in a 2004 edition of Wired is this: The low cost of infinite shelf space and the reach of the internet enables niche products to reach an audience—and for this reach to be economically viable. The following chart from Slate Magazine captures the concept nicely.


It’s a nice insight and Anderson musters compelling evidence for the increasing power of the long tail to transform our economy and our business infrastructure.

To hear Anderson being interviewed by the incomparable Tom Ashbrook, check out the On Point archive from July 18, 2006.

To read a critique of the concept—a warning about its boundary conditions—from Slate Magazine’s Tim Wu, check out the article entitled, "The Wrong Tail: How to turn a powerful idea into a dubious theory of everything."

To read how the concept might affect the publishing industry, check this out from the NY Times Book Review.

To read how the concept might apply to the healthcare field, read Jim Walker’s thoughtful analysis.

To read a critique of the concept (and the actual economic data) from the Wall Street Journal, read Lee Gomes excellent article, "It May Be a Long Time Before the Long Tail Is Wagging the Web."

To read more about the Long-Tail concept, check out The Long Tail blog.

How does the long tail relate to the learning-and-performance field? I offer some initial thoughts:

1. Course content: The long tail may enable more and more niche players to succeed in the marketplace, potentially hurting companies with large libraries of everything. Is this why Skillsoft’s stock has lost 75% of its value over the last four years (though it’s been inching up lately).
2. Conferences: The long tail may kill, or significantly weaken, the mega conference, pushing attendees into smaller, niche-driven conferences. Simultaneously, vendors (the financial life blood of most conferences), may avoid mega conferences and spend their exhibit dollars in smaller conferences, especially industry-specific conferences.
3. Industry organizations: Organizations like ASTD, ISPI, Masie Center, etc., may lose their influence to specialty organizations (like the elearningGuild) that are attracting an increasingly devoted membership.
4. Employment: Perhaps the long tail will push more and more individuals and small groups into external consulting, development, and delivery functions.
5. Publishing (including books, magazines, eBooks, and blogs): The long tail may make it easier and easier for authors and thought leaders to distribute their works online, putting pressure on book publishers like Pfeiffer and ASTD to compete, and periodicals like T+D, PI, and CLO to maintain an audience in the face of a burgeoning swell of blogs, white papers, and webinars.
6. Industry Advertising: If we think of advertising placement opportunities as products, the long tail may push vendors in our industry to seek niche placements. One opportunity for this is the Google or Yahoo! online advertisements that are already changing the advertising game, but other niche opportunities are available as well.
7. Best practices: Until a seismic event occurs in our industry, professionals have too little impetus to create effective learning-and-performance interventions. Thus, sadly, we will continue to window shop for fad-of-the-moment ideas emerging from the long tail. After emerging from the long tail, fad-of-the-moment ideas will enjoy a brief explosion into the head of the curve, before gradually fading back into the obscurity of the long tail.

Where will the long tail not apply:

1. Credentialing: Although ISPI’s CPT (Certified Performance Technologist) and ASTD’s CPLP (Certified Professional in Learning and Performance)—are both available (as are a few other credentials), multiple credentialing agencies weaken the meaningfulness of a credential, making it likely to put a ceiling on the market power of these credentials.
2. Authoring Tools: Buyers tend to gravitate toward stable tools and systems, not wanting to deal with the uncertainty of new technologies.
3. LMS’s: Again, buyers tend to gravitate toward tools that are proven and vendors that can afford to invest in interface-diverse interoperability.
4. Work-Learning Research and Will Thalheimer: Though I am likely to always to be hidden somewhere in the long tail, I have ambitions to be ubiquitous with my message of research-based practice. BIG TONGUE-IN-CHEEK SMILE.