Often, traditional knowledge management programs focus on distilling knowledge into systems of record, which end up being under-utilized for a number of reasons, chief among them because they cannot contain the Long Tail of Knowledge. And yet organizations, and people, create barriers to enabling the Long Tail, sometimes due to misunderstanding the capabilities of crowd-sourcing. The benefits of enabling the Long Tail are made evident in ecommerce, where Chris Anderson, author of the book of the same name, found that the more inventory ecommerce sites added, the more they sold (replacing the old 80/20 rule). Here, the 98 percent rule held. No matter how much they add, these sites consistently sell 98 percent of their inventory, at least a handful of times each quarter.

Activating the Long Tail requires, most often, a cultural shift from single-(expert) sourcing and knowledge curation to crowed-sourcing and curation from throughout the organization, and even including customers. Technologies now exist to facilitate the crowd-sourcing of knowledge and curation (and importantly to enable contextual relevance, just as Amazon suggests relevant book titles from among its tens of millions); however most often, cultural implications will constrain an organization’s willingness to share knowledge so openly.

Change is always difficult, and nowhere is it more difficult than when facing shifting paradigms that may appear counter-intuitive.  How can a crowd curate knowledge, when knowledge is related to specific expertise?  The answer, and example, may lie with Wikipedia.  Back in 2005, Wikipedia had 3.7 million articles, and its accuracy slightly trailed encyclopedias. Now, Wikipedia has 23 million articles, and its accuracy and references are on a par with Encyclopedia Britannica (which, by the way, has switched to online-only availability) as well as the leading encyclopedias in two other countries, in their native languages. This is based on research conducted by Oxford University and Epic Consultancy. The crowd has curated Wikipedia articles, successfully and at scale.

With Oxford as our background, let’s look at four ways we can overcome cultural obstacles to get comfortable with enabling the Long Tail of Enterprise Knowledge:

  1. Identify the level of content curation. It is fairly easy with today’s technology to identify the source and level of curation of each piece of information, either by explicit user endorsements (such as likes) or through symbols that identify whether the information has been curated or is in-progress.
  2. Encourage crowd curation. Communicating the reasons for employee and community contributions to curation, for example in the customer support environment enabling the linking of information to cases (in the flow of work), increases participation. When consumers of the information and knowledge find benefit, they will participate more frequently because they will understand that they also benefit from the efforts of others.
  3. Trust employees to think.  People rarely take information at face value if they are aware of the consequences of using the wrong information, are unaware of the information source, or are aware that information has not been vetted. Moreover, peers trust peers and will value their curation of the content. Bottom-up messaging, created by peers, is often perceived as more valuable than top-down.
  4. Be sure to ensure relevance. Enabling the Long Tail of Knowledge might seem like you’re about to unleash the wild, wild west of information, and without handling relevance, that’s exactly what will happen; your initiative would be hung at high noon, never to be trusted again. However, just as Amazon sifts through the millions of titles that might interest you and presents you with those you may not have known about but actually interest you, technology can now enable the same relevance recommendations from within the Long Tail. Agents and other knowledge workers will simply experience the information, knowledge and experts relevant to their context, in the flow of their work. This can take the form of recommendations of information and experts who can help them solve a case or win a deal.

With these culture-changing steps in place, you’ll be positioned to unlock the tremendous value in your organization’s knowledge and information, regardless of where it is stored. Just imagine what your organization will do when it reuses 98 percent of its collective knowledge.