The Long Tail, the 80:20 Rule and the role of learning professionals

“What is the Scope of our Responsibility as Learning Professionals?”

In 1959 Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker” to describe

one who works primarily with information or one who develops and uses knowledge in the workplace. It is performed by subject-matter specialists in all areas of an organisation;

(1973, p.839)

their tools are the knowledge assets they use in an organisation. It is “generally accepted” (Drucker, 2006, p.165) that the knowledge workers’ expertise in their role is the starting point for enhancing productivity, quality of work, and performance. If knowledge workers are to continue contributing to an organisation, their knowledge must remain up-to-date.

Since Peter Drucker coined the term ‘knowledge worker’, learning professionals have been moving away from the silo of the training department and have become more integral to the broader ongoing development of the primary assets organisations possess: its people and their expertise.

With the range of learning technologies and content delivery channels now available, learning professionals are meeting the needs of learners more successfully than ever before. They have done so adapting to the changing nature of organisations, which has meant increasing the breadth and depth of the functions undertaken by learning professionals.

My view is that the responsibility of learning professionals encompasses the areas listed below:


  • Training strategy formation
  • Communication
  • Implementation
  • Learning Needs Analysis
  • Performance Gap Analysis


Knowledge Management

  • Information Repository Development (Formal CMS solutions as well as non-formal wikis, blogs & podcasts)
  • Content Management / Architecture Leadership
  • Communities of Practise
  • Knowledge Networks
  • Experts & Expertise

Formal Instruction

  • E-Learning
  • Instructor-led Training
  • Online Mentoring


  • Assessments & Evaluation
  • Formal Examination
  • Certification
  • Reporting & Measurement

Organisational Development

  • Workplace Learning & Support
  • Performance Support
  • Informal Learning Environments
  • Non-formal Learning (InfoSession-type events)
  • Formal Instruction (Classroom-based / Web-based)


  • Ongoing workplace-related development
  • Performance support

…and scaling, as we transition the transfer of knowledge ‘from atoms to bits’ in this Digital Age.

Interestingly, these domains of expertise align closely to Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Evaluation, where (for example) Formal Instruction in the categories I’ve detailed here equates with Level 2 (Learning) and Level 4 (Results) with Performance.

But we’re here to talk about the Long Tail, which I think is an interesting concept to apply to learning & development, but I’m struggling with seeing how to apply it as a rule or axiom in the learning world; I would assert that there is no evidence to support the view that learning professionals / departments specifically have to support Long Tail learning as distinct from all the other modalities of learning within their sphere of influence, except in a certain context.

Long tail

That context is this: as more and more digital learning content has been developed and distributed using networked channels, online learning has moved from being a net consumer of educational materials to a net producer of learning resource. As such, more types of information / knowledge / learning resources are now available than heretofore. The very existence and availability of these resources to learners ensures their continued, low-level usage over time. Very much like the odd consumer searching for that obscure title on, some (diminishing) number of learners (over time) will continue to access rarely-use or more likely, out-of-date learning materials.

An example of this: e-learning

content developed for a legacy version of an application (i.e. authored and compiled in Adobe Flash rather than HTML5) will still have an audience, but a diminishing one; yet the content still remains if you so wish to use it, for as long as it’s available for you to find.

However, as John Hager points out in Paying Attention “what we know at any point in time has diminishing value.” Taking this truism into account I would suggest that a more appropriate model to apply is the Pareto Principle upon which the Long Tail is based.

The Pareto Principle is more commonly known as the “80:20 Rule” and was originallydevised as a means of quantifying distribution of income and wealth among a population (20% of a population own 80% of the wealth).

It’s reasonable to say that that knowledge is a form of wealth, and knowledge workers, experts, and “More Knowledgeable Others” exemplify the distribution of knowledge in an organisation. To extend the analogy, learning professionals are the “bankers” or economists of knowledge and the role and responsibility of the learning professional should extend to distributing the acquired skills, expertise and knowledge of workers to others within the organisation. The methods and means of this scope are, like all things, reliant on the nature of the organisation the learning professional is in.


Hagel, J 2006, ‘Paying Attention’, Edge Perspectives with John Hagel, viewed 1 July 2017,

Drucker, P. F. (1973) Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. New York, Harper & Row

Drucker, P. F. (2006) Classic Drucker. Boston, MA. Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation