Friday, February 25, 2005

The Long Tail and KM

On our corporate blog, Ross mentioned that a focus of last week’s company retreat was whether we felt we were satisfying our mission of serving as the long tail of wiki usage. Now before anyone accuses us of abusing multiple buzz phrases in one sentence, I’ll cop to it. Nevertheless, this is a topic I’ve been meaning to return to — not Socialtext per se, but how the long tail concept factors into our understanding of KM.

I wrote about the long tail last month, and have been intrigued by it since my initial reading of the Wired article. A quick summary: the long tail was Chris Anderson’s recognition that a significant percentage of online retailers’ revenues came from items that aren’t even stocked in their brick & mortar competitors. (Barnes & Noble only stocks 130,000 books, yet more than half of Amazon’s revenues from books comes from titles outside of the top 130,000 books.)

The more I thought about it, the more I came to believe that there was a corollary to what wikis do for knowledge capture and knowledge management. When I spoke at a KM Chicago meeting earlier this month, I spent a few minutes elaborating on this. What if, I asked, more than half of the institution’s knowledge wasn’t even captured, let alone leveraged? What if the reasons for that failure — lack of adoption, poor implementation, difficulty of encouraging use — were similar to the reasons brick & mortar companies don’t stock an endless supply of books? (I may be stretching the analogy, but bear with me: shelf supply is limited, inventory is costly, it’s hard to know which low-volume titles will sell well… in much the same way that time is limited, technology is expensive, and it’s hard to predict what information people will have that the company wants to capture.)

Socialtext makes the capture of information simple: you see something wrong on a page? Click edit, update the page. Have something in your inbox that needs to be archived? Forward it to your workspace. With RSS integration, you can expose feeds of information to the group with nothing more than the site’s URL. Now it’s not hard or expensive to capture and share useful information, and less thought needs to go into thinking about how people will want to use the site: they’ll figure that out on their own, and the workspace will likely evolve in unexpected directions to satisfy the users’ needs.

In one of my first posts on this blog in 2001, I linked to a 1999 Peter Drucker article in The Atlantic in which he suggested that successful companies will increasingly focus on attracting, holding and motivating knowledge workers. I agreed with Drucker, but suggested that the firm would need to actually enable and reward those knowledge workers to be successful.

I think I was wrong. Framed in that context, success is contingent on a top-down approach to the business. In the year I’ve been at Socialtext, I’ve seen numerous examples where organizations have encouraged those in the trenches to use the tools they need to get their work done; management remains focused on the metrics that drive the business, while workers remain focused on getting the work done. Rather than suggest a wholesale shift in how management and employees interact (a nice concept, but overly utopian in practice), these organizations have simply looked to adopt lightweight tools that make it easier for their employees to get their work done.

And that’s where I think the long tail comes in. Organizations that look to capture and leverage the knowledge that’s historically been so hard to manage will find they’ve got a competitive advantage. I got challenged on this point during my KM Chicago presentation; one of the people in the audience correctly pointed out that the long tail focused exclusively on consumer businesses where the difference — brick and mortar vs. digital — was far clearer than in the business context I was suggesting.

I don’t disagree, yet the notion of the long tail has been like a loose thread I keep tugging on… in much the same way that my initial exposure to weblogs and RSS in 2001 led to a slow-to-crystallize view that they changed everything. My intuition proved correct where blogs and RSS were concerned, maybe I’m in the ballpark on this one?

Let me know your thoughts.


  1. Profiting from the long tail is possible because Amazon, et al., made hidden works _available_. Once people _could_ buy them, they did. The tail itself is just a line on a graph.

    That same line exists in organizations. Most of us know something that is difficult to share, but procedures may make the barriers to sharing too high. The organization does need to enable knowledge sharing, by removing explicit or implicit barriers to entry.

    I think you're on track, but the long tail in an organization is not the hidden knowledge; it's the people. By making it _easy_ to share information, you expose the hidden people. The benefit comes from seeing who knows what, in being able to use them in more effective roles.

    And some of that capital which goes home every night might stay in the office.

  2. Give Customers Just The Hits? No Thanks.

    Saw a post over at Matt Homann's site (hey Matt, turn yer comments on, would ya?) that led me to a post by Andrea Learned entitled "'Editing' in the Retail Environment." The pull quotes from Learned's post: "Not every laptop