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Social Learning and the Long Tail

March 15, 2009

Content creation in the enterprise is based on the same economic drivers that govern any sort of media development – scarcity and “shelf space.” Scarcity in the available resources to produce (bodies, money and time) and limited “shelf space” in what can be mandated.

In retail, shelf space is literally about the available space to display items. A limited amount of space forces retailers to feature only those items that appeal to the greatest number of buyers. As most organizations plan employee development today, the “shelf space” in the learning world is the time available to learners to take training. Think of the shelf as a 40 hour work week. Most of the shelf is filled with work-related tasks, the individual production of each employee that contributes to the overall success of the organization. Within this larger shelf of hours, a relatively small percentage is dedicated to training and development. It might be just 5-10% of the overall shelf space. So what do we put there? Naturally, we put the stuff that appeals to the greatest number of buyers. No? Yeah, that’s not quite right. Most of the time companies don’t care much about what their employees want to learn; instead they focus on what the company wants to teach to learners.

So what they put on the shelf is the stuff that the company thinks is necessary for the greatest numbers of employees to know – compliance, certification, and common curricula. Not surprisingly, given the scarcity on the production side, this is also what the training group typically focuses on producing. Of course, now and then, the organization sets up an “End Cap” featuring some new and unique material — typically initiatives around specific topics: a new software rollout, a new product, a new policy — but then it’s back to the normal set of training and work products.

As with the economics of digital marketplaces, however, there is a Long Tail to the learning marketplace, provided we are willing to rethink content. Learning content today is very “heavy” – in the past I have referred to it as a Thanksgiving dinner. To consume most courseware or classes as they are designed today, we need to set aside some significant time. Thus the need to allocate specific “space” on the shelf for training.

Imagine instead a model where every other product on the shelf included training, where training was basically “packaged with” all of the real work that gets done throughout the week. Further imagine that these training elements are themselves redesigned to be smaller, lightweight chunks of information that are contextually appropriate and easily consumed. Imagine that we can rate these chunks of information and link them to each other through tags, explicit links, and activity feeds.

Once we rethink content from heavy, episodic delivery, we can begin rethinking the issues of shelf-space and scarcity. If training and learning are part of our everyday experience instead of a separate activity, then shelf-space becomes a moot point. Learning becomes part of the work, and work becomes part of the learning.

As long as we think of training and learning as “outside” the normal workflow, then it must compete with all the other products on all the other shelves in the store. In this limited worldview, “training” is relegated to 25% of the middle shelf in aisle 10. But, when we shift our perspective to think of “learning,” rather than training, and to think of learning not as “other,” but as “part of” all the other work activities, then suddenly training and learning is on every shelf in every aisle of the store. In this model, the idea of a “shelf-space for learning” almost becomes oxymoronic.

In this new world, instead of “lowest common denominator” topics designed to support the needs of the average employee, the content of learning would be as varied as the work itself. Niche content and case-specific training would arise alongside standard new hire curricula. The “scope” of learning content would be dramatically improved and would organically reflect the work of the enterprise. For years, analysts have been advocating a closer connection between functional business units and training departments to help training groups produce content that is more tactically and strategically relevant to the business. When work becomes learning and learning becomes work, this happens naturally.

Scarcity also becomes much less of an issue in this model. Once the whole company or extended enterprise is creating content and integrating learning and training into the daily workflow, then the issues of bodies, money, and time become much easier to manage. By opening development to the entire company, or maybe even the extended enterprise (customers, partners, suppliers, channels, resellers, sometimes even the public), we dramatically drive up the “bodies” producing content.

Money becomes less of an issue because we’re tapping into a much broader pool of creators and creating a different class of content that isn’t as focused on a big, formally produced course. It’s significantly less expensive in terms of time and effort to write a blog post, wiki article, comment, or discussion post than create an hour-long course. Creating smaller chunks of content that are networked together is much more cost-effective, both in terms of real dollars and distribution of costs than episodic creation of heavier, more formal materials.

As for “time,” we have already addressed “consumption” time in the discussion about shelf-space, we just need to address creation time. But in this new world, consumption and production go together. None of us would just be consumers; we would all be consumers and producers or “prosumers,” a term used extensively in the marketing world. Time, therefore, also becomes more abundant because we are distributing creation across orders of magnitude more people from whom we expecting continual marginal contributions, rather than episodic heroic ones.

Just as in the Long Tail of economics, the Long Tail of Learning is a theory of abundance, where learners have more opportunities to learn and teachers have more opportunity to teach. It’s a world where everyone is both a teacher and a learner, where the content as varied as the work and as deep as the need. It’s a world where the work is the learning and the learning is the work, and where traditional notions of training budgets and employee development time are seen as the anachronisms they are.

Does this mean certification, compliance, and curricula go away? No, of course not. Even with iTunes and Netflix and Comcast OnDemand, there are still hit shows, Top 40 music, and blockbuster movies. This is the “short head” in a long-tail model. In our world, these are commonly needed certifications, compliance, and curricula. Our learners and our organizations still need this stuff and these kinds of formal, structured training aren’t going anywhere. Here is a diagram of what this might look like:

The Long Tail of Learning

The Long Tail of Learning

The shift here lies in recognizing that these forms of delivery and this kind of content are not what’s driving our business nor are they the best way to deliver the majority of the strategic and tactical learning in the organization. The Long Tail provides a model for this sort of learning, and shows how we can rethink creation and consumption to be more distributed and closer to the work, maybe ever “part of” the work. Perhaps more importantly, it shows us how to help ourselves get through this recession in the short-term while positioning our companies for mid and long-term success in adapting to a world of user-generated content.

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