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Monday, February 25, 2008

Long Tail Learning - Size and Shape

Beth Griese - posted a response Is Learning 2.0 a long tail? to my post Corporate Learning Long Tail and Attention Crisis. In it, Beth shows a graphic:

This caused us to have a good exchange. Beth tells us:
I'm thinking of "topics" as anything that an organization's people would want to learn about for their jobs. I'm not limiting that to the "traditional means" training topics, but I do limit that to things that are job-related, which is why I think the tail has a limit.

I'm thinking that the scope of the demands from our learners are finite and still within the means of a training department (with the help blending training programs and of the social knowledge of the company properly harnessed), rather than requiring the power of an Amazon-sized retailer to meet a near-infinite long tail of interests.
If I think about myself and my current and future information needs that relate to all aspects of my job, these are continually changing and growing. So, even if there was a way to define my current tail, tomorrow there's more. And when you talk about all people within an organization, well it seems clear that it's very, very large - effectively infinite. So, I'd want to make sure that we don't delude ourselves:
  1. Long tail learning is effectively infinite
  2. There is no way for an individual to keep up (see Kathy Sierra's The Myth of Keeping Up) much less learning and development.
  3. Trying to "keep up" and putting ourselves in the producer role is not going to work.
Instead, I truly believe that the information needs are tracking the shift shown in the following graph (and Beth's graph seems to agree with this except that she cuts it off):

We have to face up to the reality that information needs are shifting and our role can either only focus on the shrinking tall end of the long tail or we can look at how we can play in the long tail where smaller audience sizes, rapidly changing content, etc. makes it such that traditional "topics" kind of approach doesn't really fit.

There's quite a bit more on the size and shape of the long tail through my post on Long Tail SEO - 60+ Articles.


V Yonkers said...

I think this view is much too static. It doesn't take into consideration the immediacy many of the new generation requires in communication, nor of their inability to identify what their own training needs are. (see my blog

Anonymous said...

Hi Tony, another great post on this topic! I'm going to continue our discussion about whether this tail is truly infinite (or close enough to it not to count), but before I do I want to start by completely agreeing with you on 98% of our discussion.

We, as trainers, do need to embrace change, both in the topics we teach and the methods we use to deliver training, in order to meet the ever-expanding needs and motivations of our learners. I think that's the most important part of what we're discussing, and I think we're in absolute agreement on it. And I'm enjoying debating the more-esoteric ramifications of this.

Now here's my quibble part: when you introduce time to the discussion, I'd say you're adding a third axis to our charts, one that's not usually there in discussions about long tails. Yes, the training materials in use today will not be in use 10, 5, maybe even 1 year from now. But trainers at a bank, for instance, will be limited in their training needs to things that are related to that bank's function. That's why I see a limit to the training needs that an organization will have at any one time. Very true that, with each passing year, those needs are going to shift, but they will still be a finite set of needs.

Tony Karrer said...

Beth - I agree with you that there are additional dimensions to this: change to the information, growth of information, etc. So, yes, time has impact on this.

I think where our disagreement may lie is that you are using the term "training needs" and I was thinking in terms of "information needs" ... I think of training as inherently a publish model. You don't think of some information needs as being training needs because it doesn't fit the model. For example, is finding out how eLearning tools might fit particular needs in your organization a "training need" - probably not unless you are really big, but there are likely information needs among various people around this question (maybe you need related information). There's no way that you can possibly create training for all of these topics.

So, information needs feels infinite - training needs feels more finite. Is that our disagreement?

Tony Karrer said...

Virginia - I agree that this is too static a picture.

And how do you distinguish training needs vs. information needs?

V Yonkers said...

For such a simple question, it was very thought provoking. I finally wrote about it on my blog (the difference between information and learning).