Monday, 3 June 2013

Communities and the long (knowledge) tail

There is a tendency in many companies to see Knowledge as being the province of the Experts.

As a result, they set up expert centres to look after the knowledge, and expert networks to share knowledge between experts around the organisation.

However one of the big culture shifts within Knowledge Management is the recognition that Knowledge is the province of all Knowledge Workers, not just the experts. Expert networks will access only a small part of the knowledge of the organisation, the remainder will be held by the non-expert Knowledge Workers.

Take the example shown in the graph here. The graph represents 50 workers within an organisation, with varying levels of experience from 30 years to 1 year. Initially the company decides that they will share knowledge by setting up a small network between the four experts - those with 15 or more years of experience (the red bars). Between them, these experts have 88 years of experience.

After a while, the company decides to replace the expert network with a full community of practice, where all 50 of the knowledge workers take an active role. The total years of experience within the community is now 274 - more than three times the experience than that held by the experts alone.

The value of this added experience comes when it is applied to knowledge in the work context. Knowledge is contextual - the application of knowledge changes on where it is applied, and when, and to what. The larger community has seen many more contexts, and the person who gives the advice is not necessarily the person with the longest experience, but the person with the most relevant context. Maybe that person has only been in the company a year or two, but if they have had relevant experience within that short time, they can answer the question, offer the advice, and add real value.

This is the concept of the long tail of knowledge.

The "long tail" is a term that has has gained popularity in recent times as describing the retailing strategy of selling a large number of unique items with relatively small quantities sold of each – usually in addition to selling fewer popular items in large quantities. The long tail of knowledge is a knowledge sharing strategy of offering a huge amount of knowledge transfer opportunities, with relatively small numbers of each particular question/answer exchange. It allows niche knowledge to be sought and found, provided the community of practice is large enough and broad enough.

Large online communities of practice allow access to the Long Tail.

Small expert groups access only the short head.

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