Home > Enterprise 2.o, technology > The Long Tail of Knowledge

The Long Tail of Knowledge

This might be one of my more esoteric posts, but it has been bugging me for a couple weeks.  Putting my thoughts down may help me get past it. Possibly, a couple of my online friends have some advice.  It started with this Tweet

@rotkapchen: RT @business_design: the more you know the less you understand -I then added “Long tail of knowledge? Is trendy though”

and sent it back into the ether that is Twitter. As an aside, apparently this phrase was also stated last night at OOW09.

Most who might come along this blog likely understand what the Long Tail theory espouses, but I will not assume.  You can check Wikipedia for details, but the summary version is a businesses strategy that works to sell a large number of unique items, each in relatively small quantities. If you think about this, it goes against the mass production model, and it is not easy to accomplish.

What is bothering me is a concern that as a culture, especially with the likes of Twitter, we seem to be ‘skin deep’ on too many topics. What does the Long Tail principle do to knowledge systems? Is that a good thing or not? Do you agree with the statement, “The more you know, the less you understand” ?  Do we get caught up in proving what we know (ie Blogs) and not spending enough time really digging in and making sure that we think through that which we are saying? It is possible that this is really two issues;  the first what we know, the second what we are willing to state that we know.

This does play into the topics we are all discussing, the leap is not too big. There may be a difference between speaking or writing beyond what we truly understand and thinking out loud, but that difference is subtle. I am personally cautious as are many of us…sorry if this was a bit of a ramble, but I do feel better now 🙂

Anyone willing to offer some advice? Give an opinion even…

  1. bizinvermont
    October 14, 2009 at 11:53 am

    Skin deep, yes undeniably true. However I like to think of it more as conversations. Being one who greatly expands my awareness and perspective through interactive conversation, I liken our skin deep interactions on many subjects to conversations — on a wide variety of subjects simultaneously. It’s up to me to choose when to go deeper into something if I need a more thorough understanding. But conversations alone are definitely transformative.

    • Mitch Lieberman
      October 14, 2009 at 12:34 pm

      Thanks for the feedback, it is appreciated. I agree with your points, it is up to the individual to make the decision. If everyone had (has?) your awareness, I suppose I would not really have an issue.

      But sometimes people are really just thinking out loud, brainstorming a bit and possibly even change their course after some feedback (like this possibly), but those that read the first time, may not come back, and take what was said as gospel.

      Even reading your comments has helped me to further my understanding of some of the issues. I am hopeful others can find some value as well, but take the conversation in proper context – It is all a journey.

  2. October 14, 2009 at 12:17 pm

    Hi Mitch,

    Interesting comparison and I think you touched a social phenomenon that we see all around: the wisdom of the crowds does not increase because we are all staying in our comfort zones. We write about what we think people want to read and we write about things we know and understand deeply. All to ensure that we are still liked by the (accidental) community that is so dear to us. In the Netherlands we call this Socially Desirable Behavior.

    I’m guilty myself on my Blog when I e.g. write about Metrics. I may have written one or two thought provoking ones, out of ten or so (and got hammered on it), but never really dug deeper than 1/2 a foot below the surface. As an excuse I’m continuously looking to expand my knowledge, find people/write-ups with similar thoughts as I have, just to become more comfortable before trusting to the paper, what I think should be done..

    The same is now happening with regard to Social CRM. All the discussions around naming it, being part of whatever business design/strategy etc.. makes me keep my voice down, trying to find out what direction we are all heading.. I guess I’m not the only one, seeing the people around me take a dive back into their comfort zones (technology mostly 😉 too or asking a lot of people for their opinions.. You also have the ones that continue to write without adding real meat. And there are the ones that stop writing (and thinking?) at all..

    Don’t get me wrong, I believe it is good to have some time for contemplation, thinking or research. And it is important to get as much views as possible from other people too. We should prevent ourselves though from thinking paralysis, just because we don not know how the crowds thoughts will evolve. We should always remember that the crowds is just a sum of all individuals, so it will only take an individual to get the crowds moving again..

    One question: who will give the first push?

    Great post Mitch!

    • Mitch Lieberman
      October 14, 2009 at 12:43 pm

      Wim – thanks for stopping by! I appreciate your comments as always, and I learned something – “Socially Desirable Behavior” – I wish my kids had a little more of that! I do like the back and forth, but as many of us have been saying, it is time to push forward.

      Your comment near the end, regarding crowds is interesting. People like to be lead, crowds love a leader. As you state “it will only take an individual to get the crowds moving again”. In the context of CRM or SSC a crowd is really the sum of the loudest individuals, not necessarily the smartest, or most knowledgeable.

      That is why crowds need leaders and guides to help move them the right direction. Are you a leader, or a guide? I think you personally are both, and do both well. I am not sure which one I am…it depends upon the day.

      • October 14, 2009 at 1:23 pm

        Thanks for an awesome compliment Mitch.. I wish a was all of that, in a better way..

        I do agree with you that shouting out loud may have some effect in the short term on people that are not willing or able to take a deeper dive. Those will be the ones building mediocre solutions or mediocre businesses at best. We have enough of those already and we will have plenty still in the future. Some will just get more out of the discussions than others, just like some businesses will get more out of their strategies than others. It’s a survival of the fittest to hint on Graham’s Customer Centric DNA (I’m sure you have those tweets still going back and forth in your gray masses sometimes ;-). I for one did not embark upon this journey to get out mediocre.. I think you did not too. So, I guess we will see the others at the finishing line 😉

        Furthermore I like to think not in crowds and leaders, but in crowds and tribes.. It is the tribe that leads or guides the crowds. I also like to think of our accidental #scrm community as a tribe.

        The great thing about a tribe is that they consist of people with a similar mindset, although they may have different thoughts and ideas, and they are open to other thinking. Tribes, imho, consist of strong individuals that all bring value to the table, regardless if they lead in the discussion by writing first or provoke in the comments of posts of others, or sometimes even sit still and just absorb.

        Another great asset of such a tribe is that each “member” brings a unique combination of thinking capabilities to the table. In my opinion the best tribes have “members” that combined contain all of the six thinking hats:

        Neutrality (White) – considering purely what information is available, what are the facts?
        Feeling (Red) – instinctive gut reaction or statements of emotional feeling (but not any justification)
        Negative judgement (Black) – logic applied to identifying flaws or barriers, seeking mismatch
        Positive Judgement (Yellow) – logic applied to identifying benefits, seeking harmony
        Creative thinking (Green) – statements of provocation and investigation, seeing where a thought goes
        Process control (Blue) – thinking about thinking

        So, pick your color(s) and you know which one you are (most). And when you feel like wearing a different hat, feel free any time to pick another color. I know you’ll look good in all of them.

    • October 14, 2009 at 2:21 pm

      Socially desirable behaviour (as you mentioned Wim) in an enterprise setting is also shaped by HR tools such as Job Descriptions, Salary levels (and risk of losing your job), Objectives, MBOs, Company Culture.

      I can see guerilla uptake of the tools by the digitally enlightened, or even kick-starting of cross-functional collaboration through the use of ideation sessions for example to get people to realize they can add more value than just their daily tasks. But in the end if the company does not provide the HR framework and governance to make Ecosystem Collaboration into Socially Desirable Behaviour, people will just go back to their 9 to 5 job roles and only do just what it takes to earn their pay.

      Customers are freer in the sense that they have none these constraints placed upon them as they have the ‘Power of Choice’. If they think they are not being taken into consideration the way expect, they can go elsewhere with their ideas and insights, not just their money!. Inviting the customer in to ‘co-create value’ is to help the company think out-of-the-(self-imposed)-box.

  3. janetjoz
    October 14, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    I started thinking about this in terms of “the quantity of information we are now exposed” a while back – here is what popped into my head. I call it Skimplications LOL but I think this new world of info access opens the field for some incredible tool opportunities. What those tools are or will be I am still not sure about…I need to actually start refining the thought. http://janetjoz.wordpress.com/2009/02/19/hello-world/

    • Mitch Lieberman
      October 14, 2009 at 5:37 pm


      Thanks for stopping by…I agree the simple amount of data is huge, followed by turning that data into information. Finally, making the information actionable – now there is the challenge.

  4. rotkapchen
    October 15, 2009 at 3:55 am

    Way too much deep thought for me : )

    I’m not going to deny that the thought did apply to some pretty quantum subjects, but at the end of the day it applies most to my family life…I swear I’m speaking English and they hear Swahili.

  5. grahamrhill
    October 15, 2009 at 6:55 am

    Hi Mitch

    Interesting post.

    As William Gibson pointed out, “the future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed”. The same applies to information, knowledge, insight and wisdom. The challenge is in knowing where to look for the knowledge that you need, to make yourself more effective at whatever you are doing. In the past, that meant long phone conversations, visits to the library and wading through impenetrable books. Today, the same information can be had in a fraction of the time through twitter conversations, ‘Googleing’ the subject and reading articles on the Internet. For example, an academic presentation on using Design Probes at the MCPC09 conference in Helsinki spurred my interest. Within 30 minutes od starting to search I had been pointed to half a dozen writers on the subject, a dozen articles and was starting to read Tuuli Mattelmärki’s PhD thesis on Design Probes.

    But as Nick Carr has also pointed out, the surfeit of shallow information easily available on the Internet is also in danger of making us, let’s just say, ‘fluffy’ readers. It is all too easy to skim the details by quickly looking at half a dozen precis articles than to dive deeply into a thoughtful essay on the subject. On balance, I don’t subscribe to this thesis. Fluffy readers have always existed and will continue to do so. They are catered for by an army of fluffy writers. The Internet has reduced the burden of gaining access to this light reading. And there is nothing wrong with that. The deeper, more thoughtful readers will continue to find a treasure trove of knowledge hidden in the nooks and crannies of the Internet. All they have to do is know how and where to find it.

    The more I know, the more I understand. But, the more I know I don’t know too. Time to get back to my growing reading list of articles downloaded from the Internet. Nobody is ever going to accuse me of being a fluffy reader!

    Graham Hill
    Customer-centric Innovator

    • Mitch Lieberman
      October 15, 2009 at 1:30 pm

      Graham – You make some valid points, and I do have a better understanding, now that I know a little bit more. But, I learned because I spent the time to not only read your words (as well as Wim, Mark and others), but think about them as well. I suppose, it requires a little bit of reflection, or self realization – “I am willing to admit what I do not know”. It is this bit of humility that concerns me, as there is so much more noise in the system – ie “Fluff”.

  6. Esteban Kolsky
    October 15, 2009 at 10:25 am


    I take a few days to submerge myself in the fluff world of conferences, and this is the first I read.

    I have to say that I applaud you taking on this matter, as it is a very complicated one that has been eating at my brain for some time now. If you don’t mind, I have a few thoughts (unless I am one of the loud ones you talked about, then feel free to delete – no one will ever know except you and I).

    When I decided to get back into analyst form after being a consultant some 12 months ago I wanted to first read a few things out there on where the market stood, then talk to vendors and contacts in the industry, and finally talk to customers. An order I thought it was easy enough to accomplish with respect to the complexity of the tasks. Boy, was I wrong. I spent probably 3-4 weeks merely reading and deciding that the echo chamber had changed dramatically since I had stopped reading. In just 18 short months the complexity of the discussions had increased 10x in some cases, and the availability of content had tripled.

    This also led me to the expansion of the motto that guides my web reading: caveat lector. The web is the only place where publishing a thought as a fact is absolutely normal and expected almost. You don’t need credentials or a background, and you can build a good following from people who don’t know any better. Sure, they all get what they pay for, but the concept that an ignorant person(too harsh? i don’t think so) can create a world of their own online and get followers to admire his work in a cult-like fashion is almost scary.

    Unless you consider the online world an extension of the offline world. Then you realize that the same charlatans that exist offline move online. And their actions are amplified by magnitudes by the lack of filters and the reach of technology. Scary? probably, but we live in the same world both offline and online.

    As for the idea that the more you know the less you understand. I am 1,000% in agreement with that. It is even an accepted business concept, and one that is going to, IMO, rule our lives in the very near to mid-term future. Collecting data (or links, or PDFs, or all of them) for further studying or reading is a very common concept for individuals and organizations these days. And the huge stores of content we accumulate make us feel more ignorant (at least in concept) since we are not able to read it all and learn more. Each new concept unleashes new questions, some of them even make us doubt what we thought it was understood and set-in-stone before. This constant doubt is the “less you understand” part of your question.

    I think that it is up to us to know the limits of what we can and cannot do, and the limits of our knowledge. It is also up to us to control the second-guessing of what we DO know and use it.

    Final part of my rambling, promise. I was quoted three times today the infamous line from Mr. Rumsfeld by different people. I think it applies well here…

    The Unknown

    As we know,
    There are known knowns.
    There are things we know we know.
    We also know
    There are known unknowns.
    That is to say
    We know there are some things
    We do not know.
    But there are also unknown unknowns,
    The ones we don’t know
    We don’t know.

    —Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

    (more on his immense genius with words can be found in this slate article: http://slate.msn.com/id/2081042/)

    Thanks for the platform.

  7. grahamrhill
    October 15, 2009 at 11:23 am

    Hi Esteban

    I never knew for sure whether you are a consultant or an analyst. Take it as a compliment that I always thought you to be a consultant.

    You are right that anyone can post content — their own or belonging to others — on the Internet. You are also right that much of the content is of poor quality. Is that a problem? If you are a new reader to a subject it might be, particularly if you don’t read very widely. Just look at some of the biased rubbish that is to be found in Wikipedia; the description of CRM for example. But for anybody who is not new and who has developed an opinion of their own, it is not a problem. These people can relatively easily distinguish what is unsubstantiated opinion from what is substantiated fact. Homophilly in social networks helps here too, as our friends — who tend to be rather like us — recommend people and information to read that we often find useful.

    And don’t think for a minute that what journalists write is fact either. As often as not it is their own substantiated opinion. Just look at Malcolm Gladwell’s writing about the tipping point. Despite Gladwell being a bona fide journalist, his ideas about the tipping point have been repudiated by proper social network research carried out by a variety of academics. The same problem applies to most analyst firms too. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that much of what is peddled as substantiated fact by analysts firms is in fact just substantiated opinion — typically interviews with management and/or vendors with some supporting data – a long way from substantiated fact. And let’s not even start discussing the Halo Effect in management writing.

    The huge amount of information available on the Internet helps to answer some of Donald Rumsfeld’s unknowns. It helps us expand known knowns. It also helps us identify known unknowns and turn them into known knowns. The unknown knowns can be found, e.g. by using internal social networks to find knowledgeable people within our own organisations. And we usually find out about the unknown unknowns when a new business model destroys our organisations’ profitability, like low-cost airlines did for the American majors.

    On absolute terms, it is ludicrous to suggest that the more we know the less we understand. That is not how the human brain works. But it is right to say that the more we know, the more we recognise there is new stuff out there to learn. Happy reading.

    Graham Hill
    Customer-centric Innovator

    • October 15, 2009 at 1:25 pm

      Hi Graham, Esteban,

      You mention that “for anybody who is not new and who has developed an opinion of their own, [poor content quality] is not a problem”. Developing an opinion requires a tremendous effort of personal investment in time and interest coupled with lessons learned from experience – which people in general either don’t have, don’t take the time to acquire or have any predispositions. For this very reason they turn to the Foresters and Gartners of this world and get assisted by the Big Five and so on to hide their shortcomings and to blame if things don’t work out as they hope – and hence you have your Halo Effect.

      Rather than say that the content ‘out there’ is of such poor quality, why not comment to explain why it is so poor in your opinion. This will help others in forming their opinion in turn and maybe dispel some of the fluff. Together we know more.

      Happy reading AND sharing.

      Mark Tamis

      • grahamrhill
        October 15, 2009 at 3:37 pm

        Hi Mark

        I take a more Bayesian-updating approach to opinion formation. People quickly develop opinions about subjects based on often quite limited information about them. All this is done automatically through a process of Bayesian-updating which automatically incorporates whatever information, knowledge and experience is available into our opinions. Try not having an opinion about a news item and you will see exactly how hard it is NOT to have an opinion. Paradoxically, the more experienced we become, the less likely we are to add new information and change our opinions.

        My experience is that many companies turn to CRM analysts as a kind of ‘comfort blanket’ to support their decision making. They turn to consultants for the same, plus experienced teams to drive aggressive implementation timetables.

        Incidentally, in more than 20 years of being a manager, interim and consultant, I have never met an experienced practitioner or consultant who couldn’t run rings around the equivalent CRM analyst from one of the big analyst firms. This is perhaps why, despite reading literally hundreds of CRM analyst reports over the years, I still do not see the value of most CRM analyst reports. There are exceptions of course. Dr. Natalie Petouhoff at Forrester is an excellent analyst. And Paul Greenberg is highly complimentary about Michael Maoz at Gartner.

        Why is the average content on the Internet so poor? Because of the long-tail effect as Mitch wrote about in his post. Content, like so many things follows a long-tailed distribution. Most content is poor to average, a minority is good, a tiny minority is excellent and a minute minority is brilliant. You see the same with crowdsourced ideas as well. And many other things too. With the barriers to publication nothing more than logging on to WordPress, we should not be surprised that the average quality of content on the Internet is, well, poor to average. Would I stop these people posting stuff? Absolutely not. It is our job to know what is worth reading. Our networks of friends help show us what is great content and what not. That’s we I follow people like Mitch, Esteban and you on Twitter. And why I am posting a response to your comment on Mitch’s excellent blog now.

        Graham Hill
        Customer-centric Innovator

      • Esteban Kolsky
        October 15, 2009 at 5:04 pm


        I think that it is hard to make a blanket statement on why the content is of poor quality, and I said in my comment below is something best done at the individual level – piece-by-piece.

        I know that Graham takes on more than sufficient of that, I read his comments to a lot of what is being said out there, and is usually substantiated by existing research (which I am awed at this collection of available research).

        It is probably time for more of us to take on that task.

    • Esteban Kolsky
      October 15, 2009 at 5:02 pm


      A couple of weeks ago Paula Thorton (@redkopchen) and I were talking about what to call people who are clearly not analysts (as in big house, middle-of-the-road, average analysis) but are critical thinkers and intellectual curious — but not willing to go into consulting straight on. I do consulting, of course, as well as a different type of analysis (which I am launching into next year with more details), but I don’t want to loose the intellectual curiosity and critical thinking that are (supposedly) trademarks of analysts. I look at Paul Greenberg as a role model of sorts, trying to build something similar with my practice. Digressing, the term we came up with was domesticator.

      As in, I am a CRM domesticator. Of course, the conversation quickly deteriorated from there to areas where I am not going right now. But I am thinking of using that name… for now. I appreciate the compliment, since I do know your feelings about analysts (most of which I share).

      Back to your comments, I agree that journalists and — well, anyone, can write unsubstantiated s— stuff. yeah, that’s the word. having spent 8 years as an analyst, i know how a lot of that actually comes about. however, the problem is not the writing as much as the reading and the reader. you can only take the role of contributing critical thinking to anything out there that should not be taken at face value (of which you do a great job) and that furthering of the discussion is the critical part of moving proper content forward.

      There are, and I will get off the soap box shortly, two things that come into play here: laziness (both on the writer and the reader), and fear. Too lazy to research prior to writing, too lazy to expand the reading further since I got my answer. Fear is one that you don’t hear quoted often, but the fear of having to understand a critical concept to the point of explaining it back (and the time and patience it requires and takes away from others tasks) plays a large role in a lot of what we are discussing

      I am in agreement with your final statement: the more we know, we more we know the holes in our knowledge. Wish organizations could realize that about their corporate knowledge as well.

      Thanks for a good discussion.

      CRM Domesticator

  8. scorpfromhell
    October 15, 2009 at 8:51 pm

    Dodds & Watts posit that influence works because people are influenced and not because of influentials. Is this why I get easily influenced? May be or may be because I find something new, I get curious & probe it to get more lateral ideas, because of the cross pollination.

    Whatever, I exhibit my online behavior that is consistent with my offline behavior.

    And yet I feel inundated with info sometimes. The only reason I endure them is because I know that if I need them for some reason later on, I know where to search for more.

    Great discussion going on here! Not much that I can add to it other than a “Prem was here” comment! 😉


    The #scrm AC’s bogeyman (for want of a better sobriquet)

  1. October 14, 2009 at 11:21 am

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: