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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Corporate Learning Long Tail and Attention Crisis

John Seely Brown and Richard P. Adler’s recent article - Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Long Tail, and Learning 2.0 talks about the implications of the Long Tail on Education. The article is definitely worth a read, and it got me to finally write about what I see as a crisis in corporate learning.

If you are not familiar with the concept of the Long Tail, head over to take a look at the Long Tail article on Wikipedia. It's a pretty good introduction to the main concepts around a very important concept. You can also look at Anderson's The Long Tail. The core idea is that for retailers like Amazon, they sell very large volumes of titles that cannot even be carried in a bricks-and-mortar store.

Typical Long Tail

Carried further, when distribution, storage and production get lower, it becomes viable to sell relatively less popular products.

Thus, markets in Long Tail situations shift towards larger volumes of increasingly broader products with smaller volumes at the top.
This is happening in many situations: major publishers (CNN, Yahoo, Cnet) competing with niches publishers, competing with blogs; TV production facing a widely distributed audience across 500 cable channels and YouTube. There's quite a bit more on this in Long Tail SEO - 60+ Articles.
Since everyone still has the same amount of time to spend consuming all of these products or information, they are naturally going to spread their time over broader and broader range. This gives rise to the Attention Economy where the scarce resource is not distribution channels or information, the scarce resource is attention. Each person only has a certain amount of time. Where we choose to spend that time is important. And even if we are successful in getting someone’s attention, we often get Shorter Attention Spans and only getting partial attention - Stop Reading - Skim Dive Skim.
If you think about the Long Tail graph, it works just as well when we substitute Attention instead of Sales.
How does this impact the world of learning organizations and corporate learning functions (training organizations)? Consider the following:
  • Corporate learning functions today act like a publisher / distributor.
  • The average knowledge worker has access to an increasingly large set of information resources and corporate learning is an ever smaller part of this set.
  • Cost is most often not a factor in a knowledge workers decision about the use of information. Time (attention) is much more important. Factored in is expectation of quality (how much time I need to spend filtering the content to determine if it’s of value). As a quick example, we choose our preferred search engine in large part because we feel it will be the best investment of time to find the best quality information.
  • Information sources will continue to grow exponentially, so Corporate Learning as a traditional publisher will be able to focus on an ever smaller portion of the knowledge worker’s needs.
If we do not receive attention, we risk becoming progressively marginalized. Receiving attention becomes far more important than it ever was and will require far more effort than in the past. Corporate learning is in the midst of an attention crisis.
  • Corporate learning functions are seeking to find ways to lower production costs so they can attack broader markets – go farther into the long tail. They look to eLearning approaches to lower distribution costs. They look to rapid authoring tools to lower production costs.

  • For corporate learning functions to really impact the long tail, they will be forced to look at eLearning 2.0.
What we know at any point in time has diminishing value.
  • Corporate learning is also facing the fact that anything they create and publish becomes out of date that much faster so effective production costs are increasing.
The list of issues above represent what can truly be considered a crisis for corporate learning organizations. It's a crisis born of the Long Tail and the Attention Economy. A whole range of challenges result. I believe our first challenge is to really recognize our current world and the Disruptive Changes in Learning and realistically that we are facing an Innovators' Dilemma in Learning/eLearning.
Corporate learning functions will either continue to focus on the front of the tail and an ever smaller portion of the total information needs of knowledge workers or will look to expand into the long tail. 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 maximizing the “return of attention” for knowledge workers rather than common measures today such as cost per learner hour.
These challenges represent some pretty dramatic questions for us:
  • How do we get into the attention economy business?
  • How do we dramatically lower production and delivery costs?
  • How do we support self-service learning and user generated content?
  • How do we foster knowledge worker skills?
  • What are the new metrics?
  • What does this mean for our current learning systems?
  • How do we aggregate content?
  • What are the legal and compliance issues?
  • What are the new roles that must be created to go after this?
  • Where do our skills fit? What new skills do we need?
This is going to be interesting!


Harold Jarche said...

Excellent synthesis, Tony. This bears some further reflection. I look forward to discussing it some more.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tony,

Some great questions you have here! I work in a corporate learning and development function for a large financial services company. Your thoughts are in line with what my colleagues are doing in Europe – exploring the new roles of L&D through web 2.0 and e-learning 2.0.
But unfortunately I can’t say the same for us here in the Australian office. Our L&D and our whole HR function is still in the grips of a very conservative and traditional way of thinking/operating. So much so that those challenges scare me ! There’s so much ground to cover but I’m afraid that by the time the ones at the top wake up to it we’ll too far behind!

Look forward to exploring this further!


Anonymous said...

Ooh, this is a juicy one, Tony! I'm going to have to go back over it again in greater depth when I have more time to devote more attention to it.

But I'm with Deb and Harold - this is one to carry forward. Thing is, it smacks of something that needs to be chatted about over a beer, at one of those restaurants so accustomed to the patronage of geeks that they provide paper "table cloths" and felt tip pens to aid conversation.

Anonymous said...

Great post and analysis! We can not emphasize enough that there is a need for change within the L&D field. What might need a little more emphasis is the focus on the employee's needs (from supply focus to demand focus).

How can we help individuals develop their talents within the borders of our organization? Most organizations are still very good at destroying passion and value of talent. If L&D profesionals can make a contribution here this would be a great achievement!

Lars Hyland said...

Great post Tony.

With a freer flow and frequency of communication ricocheting around us clearly it becomes more and more of a challenge to attract and hold attention long enough to get messages/skills/knowledge across to those who need it (but you may not know they need it).

I've been exploring more and more deeply how communications experts and the advertising world in particular attract and hold attention. Indeed there is a lot of the training community can draw on to combat and cut through the "noise". But even in the ad world they're struggling to find new ways to attract and hold our attention.

But in many respects the heart of the problem has been with us for years. Quite frankly, a lot of training is poorly designed, irrelevant to the recipient and quickly forgotten for lack of opportunity to apply and practice. No wonder our audience, newly empowered by the internet chooses to go elsewhere. As experts in our field we have to persuade our audience to give attention to the messages and content we create.

We no longer have a captured audience. Perhaps we never did. Their minds were elsewhere...

Tony - would welcome some comments on my musings here.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Tony, yet another thought-provoking topic from your blog. This one really hits home since I am struggling with many of these issues within my own company. We are running the risk of becoming irrelevant to our audience and the executive leadership seems to be none-the-wiser. Here are some of my off-the-cuff thoughts and ideas:

- The role of aggregator seems to be one of the most promising. However, it will require a solid partnership between IT and L&D to create such framework within the comany and I have yet to see strong partnerships between these two groups in my experience at any large corporation.

- Web2.0 and Learning2.0 technologies also seem to be the most promising, but again, this requires that the community itself become the creators of content. This makes sense to me since in a way it is the practitioners themselves that know what information and training they need, why they need it and when it becomes obsolete.

-Further, the community has all the processes and practices currently in place for telling the relevant stories to new employees, mentoring them on the information and effective practices for that role and even innovating new ideas and ways to solve problems.

So what's the challenge?

Marshaling the technologies and access together in a way that we can tap into this vast reservoir of experience and expertise in a meaningful and efficient way. For example, how quickly will a company wiki bear fruit for those seeking knowledge? Six months...two years? How long will it take internal bloggers to be seen as experts with important ideas and contributions to how the company performs? How quickly can novices be trained on simple screencast techniques in order to provide useful knowledge to their coworkers in a skim-dive-view-pause-fastforward method?

I wish I had some answers, but the journey to the answers will certainly be an exciting one.



Tony Karrer said...

Deb - You said "colleagues in Europe – exploring the new roles of L&D through web 2.0 and e-learning 2.0"

I hope you'll share some of what they are doing. Part of our big challenge right now is understanding what people are doing.

Tony Karrer said...

@Karyn - "I'm going to have to go back over it again in greater depth when I have more time to devote more attention to it."

In the attention economy that's high praise!!! I've earned some of your time/attention. Or at least some promise of it. According to John Hagel that's a big win.

Tony Karrer said...

@Daan - "What might need a little more emphasis is the focus on the employee's needs (from supply focus to demand focus)."

Completely agree. In fact, I'd say that instead of "little" I'd say "a lot" ... It's a big part of the change itself. And part of the challenge for KM and L&D is that we've always thought top-down, big publisher models.

The only thing we have going for us right now is that it seems like employees are adapting a bit more slow than the larger consumer base. And, unlike the situation for big media competing with blogs, UCG, etc. is that we are not necessarily facing as much direct competition.

This is a fun discussion, thanks!

Tony Karrer said...

@Lars - I've been reading (well actually skimming) your blog for a bit.

I like your addition that - "but you may not know they need it"

Spot on and that's a big part of getting out into the long tail. Traditional models only make sense when you can spend the time upfront to determine needs for a large enough audience that you can do something about it at the end of the day. What do you do when you assume you can't spend the time? You focus on meta-needs.

I'd be interested to get any thoughts you have on persuasion and getting attention, but I'm not sure that "building better training" is much of an answer.

The post you pointed us to is interesting and I agree that social networking tools and social networks do work best when they cross organizational boundaries. Thus, providing a tool that allows you to network only within your corporation would seem to be far less useful and likely generate far less adoption. This is the case with tools that are social networking that's specific to a conference.

That said - I think with Social Network Operating Systems and Open Social and Data Portability, the promise is that you can do both. You can provide a network that works well inside the corporation and outside. It's a bit like what Worklight's Workbook is doing on top of Facebook (see Facebook Enterprise Application.

Tony Karrer said...

@JZ - "strong partnership between L&D and IT"

Unfortunately, there's KM often involved as well as some other players. And, I think that it's really tough right now to keep these things focused.

Recently, I was working with someone trying to get them to focus on empowering knowledge workers via training and tools. Instead, I realized that they just wanted SharePoint training.

While I've seen a few cases where L&D and IT work better together, you are right that it's not the norm.

On your questions and challenges - while I'm a technologist, in this case, I'm focusing less on technology first and more on skills. Wikis, blogs, Sharepoint, social networks - less of an issue to get them up and running. End user training is amazingly easy. Getting actual change of skills and behaviors that empower knowledge workers - Very Hard.

I'm not saying this is what you were saying. Instead like you I'm grappling with our role, payback, etc. around these things. Even what to call it.

And who's responsible for this in a corporation?

Anonymous said...

@Tony- "Getting actual change of skills and behaviors that empower knowledge workers - Very Hard."

I am in full agreement with you here. Thinking out loud, it seems to me that we have never been very good at this even with traditional tools. At least in my experience (I am an Instructional Designer), we have a way for employees to "complete" courses and we assume they then have the "skills" - but we have no processes in place to determine behavior change and improvement! Go figure.

I would love to head down a path on which skill acquisition and behavioral change come through informal Learning2.0 mechanisms. I am sure the leadership will struggle with how to vet the training and approve the skills, but I am not sure we are doing a good job with this right now anyway.

I know there is talent throughout the organization, we just need to unleash it in a way that each consumer can live productively in the long tail instead of in the tall tail that we are currently forcing them to live in so that they can take and "pass" our designated courses.

Has anyone had any experience or success with using internal social networking tools behind the firewall in order to turn every employee into an expert?

I'd love to hear some success stories...


John Zurovchak
Instructional Designer and Learning2.0 Wannabe

Anonymous said...

As an international marketer, I often use marketing concepts in Education. There are many parallel concepts, with just different terms. I'm not sure I would have chosen the long tail to analyze where workplace learning should go.

I look at workplace learning more like a distribution network, where breadth and depth are the key variables. Many marketers use a "skimming" strategy, in which product and services are distributed to a wide variety of distributors at various levels. The goal is to get the product out to the largest number of buyers. There is not much depth to the network and not many set patterns. After a while, though marketers begin to develop well defined networks that are interconnected and interdependent. This is where niche marketing would come in as it is important to know where a small group of end-users are located and what the distribution channel is to them. There is great loyalty, as this is the key to niche marketing (finding their networks and creating brand loyalty).

However, the most successful companies, like P&G are those that have a complex network of both niches and loyal brands. This deep penetration becomes much more lucrative.

In L&D, I would say that loyalty=attention (gain their attention and they will continue to come back). Many companies "skim" (standard training to as many as they can give in the company so they get the word out) or individualized training (niche training) which becomes personalized. Shouldn't we be looking at the deep systems so there is both breadth and depth to learning? These deeper systems take time to develop and there should be a social dimension to them.

Finally, services marketing focuses on the need gap, which is the difference between customer expectations (what THEY define as important) vs. customer perceived value of a service. As the good is intangible, this is difficult to quantify, but very important to customer satisfaction. Even the idea of customer satisfaction is changing to customer loyalty.

I think I will be pondering this one for a while however.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tony,

I'm actually working on gathering as much info as I can on what my European counterparts are doing - I will delivering a short segment on it in an upcoming conference here in Sydney. To give you an idea the company I work for has implemented corporate wikis, internal blogs, internal "social networking" site and they have experimented with Second Life - unfortunately these technologies haven't reached my office here in Sydney - I will share more once I have collated their "lessons learnt" and what they have achieved in more detail!

Anonymous said...


I've read a couple of these "long tail" posts...

First off, can we stop calling this a "Crisis"? If anything, my marketing friends would say, this is an opportunity to "dominate a niche"!

What this implies for me as a corporate trainer/instructional designer is that there is less to concentrate on. There's less to prepare for. By giving LESS, I actually provide MORE value. In many cases, I throw the ADDIE model out the window (Thank Goodness!!)

Not to over simplify, but I simply ask only what the client needs and I teach it. I develop training in a way that's applicable for them to use to make their jobs/lives easier. If they want more, I'm glad for the Attention, and I give it to them! Now that I've said it, this is my new "model". It's the "less is more" approach.

How fitting.

Do they want a video? I used to do extensive video work, which took a lot of effort and planning. It would upset me that they would just "glance" at my beautiful video. Again, its a lot more simpler for me in this so called "attention span economy". Rapid authoring tools all the way!

I would love to use all the educational theories I learned in school. Perhaps this "crisis" is not a crisis for the student. It may be moreso for the instructional designer who's equipped with more and more defunct tools.

Thanks for the thought provoking post. I'm enjoying life as a trainer amid the "Crisis"

Lars Hyland said...


If your new model is "less is more" you'll like my Less Learning More Often view of the world.

Let me know what you think.


Tony Karrer said...

Lars - I'm very much in agreement with providing small chunks of content, spaced over time. This is a great model and something we've been using for a while. Key is making sure you continue to get attention. Definitely like your article on this! I also enjoy your blog.

Tony Karrer said...

Joe - interesting comment. You are probably right that "crisis" is too strong a word. After all, we can continue to do what we are doing for a considerable time and ride the wave slowly down. A steady decline like what is happening to publishers in many arenas (news, music, etc.) much like the steady decline in classroom.

An opportunity "dominate a niche" implies that this is a niche - hardly - this is a much bigger piece of the equation than what we are currently doing. So, we can ride the wave of standard solutions to learning and development down or we can look to get out in front of something that has much bigger potential. Right now it's a niche, but so was eBay, Amazon when they first started - and in some ways still are right?

I am agreement in your approach to doing what the client wants / needs. And, right now, most clients are not going to ever ask you for anything but a certain amount of the same. That's what they know about. They only know a publishing model. I don't disagree that's what there is today. I also agree that today there is push to get more content out more quickly using lower cost approaches even if it's not quite as rich.

That's our attempt at trying to keep up. But, we simply can't keep up with the demands of so much using standard publishing models (over the long haul).

So, maybe you are right that this is more an opportunity than a crisis. But if you call it an opportunity, it sounds like it's optional.

Tony Karrer said...

John - "Has anyone had any experience or success with using internal social networking tools behind the firewall in order to turn every employee into an expert?"

I don't think the purpose of social networking tools is to turn everyone into an expert ... it's to help you find the experts in order to have them help you with specific needs that are often very hard to solve without getting expert input.

Are there examples of this inside the firewall - IBM is doing amazing things around this and expertise finders have been used in many different kinds of firms (pre-social networking tools).

Anonymous said...

Anyone I know that is good at anything got that way because of practice and repetition.
As trainers, the Attention Deficit you talk about is also producing interesting failures because repetition and practice is expensive to institutionalize. When you buy expertise by the hour, the easiest way to lower production and delivery cost is by sheep-dipping your knowledge workers in the latest and greatest only to have that new knowledge displaced by entropy or the next latest and greatest shiny distraction.
That means the goals of supporting self-service learning, the creation of user-generated best practices and peer coaching is less about training and more about the processes and measurement that reward the desired behaviors. It means that viewing training as something separate from the trainee’s job description is a thing of the past.