The term long tail, based originally from retail strategies, describes selling a large number of unique items with relatively small quantities sold of each, allowing the retailer to make a significant profit out of selling small volumes of hard-to-find items to many customers instead of only selling large volumes of a reduced number of popular items. The term gained momentum in a book written by Chris Anderson entitled “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More”.
The modern day IT organization is constantly battling against its Long Tail. Years of purchasing ‘tech’ has created a tail that consists of many niche solutions from small technology vendors bought to perform a ‘specific task’. Of course the advent of virtualization and cloud has let large enterprises and small alike to reduce their tail, but for many, there is still a lot of work to do. And of course, the longer the tail the more suppliers and skills that are needed to maintain the IT Service.
Indeed if you showed an IT organizations’ selection of technology against the backdrop of the long tail would probably reveal a mix of Head and Tail vendors that on reflection may be contributing to service issues, perception issues, budget management concerns and overall architectural challenges as the business organization demands change.
The Business Organization sees decades of spend on IT stuff ( too frequently on Long Tail stuff ), and have realised that over this time “IT had learned what they needed to do”. Being business people however, they fully understand the long tail, and building repeatable and scaleable business models is what they are masters at. Look at how a business organizations takes its products and services the organization is taking to market. They may be making cars, building houses, selling cruise holidays. If successful you will have mastered the art of repetition and cost sensitive routes to market. They will have built an ‘adjacent’ business stream that sells accessories ( for the cars ), insurance ( for the houses ) and luggage ( for the cruises ). They will have a partner ecosystem that provides specialist component parts that if you did yourself would drive up your operating costs and weaken the margin you so treasure. I think you will get the point I am making by now.
At some point the business organization will have realised that they did did have a Long Tail and through business acumen, strategy and execution, steps were taken to rationalise supply chain, introduce cost saving mechnanics, sourcing agents and ultimately doing more with less. Part of this strategy may have been to move away from the Head where larger suppliers have enjoyed too much monopoly and wallet share, and instead, a group of small niche Long Tailers may indeed be providing the right level of service to support current and predicted market conditions.
The sutble ( yet huge ) difference is that the Business Organization is quite good at this sourcing strategy, unlike the IT organization has had decades of not ‘worrying about this stuff’ and spent their time building the Long Tail using ‘subjective criteria’ for selection based on individual techie ‘preference’, supplier ‘recommendation’, word of mouth, experimentation ( masqueraded as R&D) and so on.
But let me close with another Long Tail.
We also have ( and the for the first time ) the Worker Long Tail, where the empowered employee is happily testing and experimenting with a full range of devices and apps that they can buy themselves using the full spectrum of the Consumer Long Tail and will eventually bring their own personal long tail into the workplace. We have heard it “I have my own smartphone”, “I use this little app in so and so’s cloud to share documents” and “yeah i access the network from my homebuilt ‘TV PC’ using some free Open Source code and a Raspberry Pi”. It is this group of workers that may never ever use the products and services the IT organization so skillfully build and manage. All they want is some of the Head services and they are good to go. Scary thought.
So who is looking at the Long Tail in the IT organization? Procurement, HR , and Marketing. No longer does the IT department get to tuck that tail away at night into the computer room. No – new people skilled and adept at maximising the Head, and minimising the Tail are now laying out the Tail in full view of everyone and asking tough questions like “Why” and “why do we need this product when we have this product” and “why did we buy this software when we no longer use it”. This goes on. What about all the skills training an IT organization has invested in to achieve competence in a particular technology stream? Having a Long Tail can be expensive and potentially counter productive.
And this is where the CLOUD is becoming the force behind a reduction in the Long Tail for the IT organization, where heavy lifting services can become part of someone elses’ Head like Google, Microsoft, Amazon, VMware and so on. But only to a point. Because whilst the Cloud is carving up to large (Head ) vendors – Microsoft, Cisco, HP etc – there is also a huge long tail of smaller partners offering tools and services that ‘optimize’ the cloud experience.
Morale of this post? Watch out for the Long Tail. Dont just focus on your own Long Tail. Consider the Business Long Tail and most definitely, take time to understand and accommodate the Worker Long Tail.