The Long Tail and Training Scarcity

Just like in the retail world, the old days for fleet training are gone and scarcity is no longer an issue as the internet allows people to be trained anywhere at any time, with no associated business disruption.

Mark Murrell

A few years back, Chris Anderson published The Long Tail, a book discussing how the internet was fundamentally changing the economics of distribution and retail.

The book talks about "the tyranny of shelf space" and how it forces retailers to only stock the products that sell in the largest volume. As a result, vendors get a distorted view of what the market really wants. The author points to the evolution of on-line music purchases as iTunes and Rhapsody brought in scores of songs and artists at a much lower cost than physical copies.

With the internet, physical barriers are removed so variety is the name of the game.  Not surprisingly, people have a huge appetite for choice, and thousands of items in every category are sold in small quantities, equaling out to massive sales numbers. No physical retailer could ever stock that many items, but in the virtual world there's no direct cost to having them available.

In the general retail world, long tail economics has been at work for a decade or more, and people have come to expect massive variety. However, in many other places people are just starting to realize that the scarcity is no longer an issue.

The Long Tail in Transportation

Within the transportation industry, driver training is one of those places.

For some, "training drivers" still means pulling drivers off the road and into classroom settings. In trucking, you’re only making money when drivers are delivering goods, so if drivers are sitting in class, then the business is taking a big hit. Much like the huge cost of shelf space forcing retailers to be picky about what they stock, the huge cost of delivering classroom training has forced fleets to be very picky about what training they deliver. Orientation, post-incident remedial work and safety courses all make the cut, but anything beyond that could be hard to justify.

However, just like in the retail world, the old days for fleet training are gone and scarcity is no longer an issue as the internet allows people to be trained anywhere at any time, with no associated business disruption. Most people I talk to understand that the internet makes training delivery more convenient and helps to catch the people who couldn't attend a live session, but that's just scratching the surface. The real value of online training is not that it makes classroom content available for people who missed the live session, but that it opens up an entirely new world of options that couldn't even be considered in a classroom environment.

More is Better

If training can be delivered without disrupting the business or infringing on the driver's home time, why not do it more often? With the impediments removed, you can do more training than ever before, without having to limit yourself to just the highest priority items.

While you may still have a prioritized list of possible training subjects, the cut-off for what can reasonably be delivered is much further down the list than it was before. As a result, different subject matter can be covered, and they can be refreshed more regularly, improving the overall absorption rate.

Progressive fleets are recognizing that and changing their entire training delivery model. Instead of killing themselves to schedule only the most critical sessions, they're doing new training every quarter (or every month) online and shifting their in-person activities to more specialized work. The results are invariably positive in terms of fleet safety and overall driver quality but it takes a big shift in mindset to consider it.

As a starting point, it's worth asking yourself a few questions:

  • If there were no impediments, how much training would you like your fleet to have, and what things would you like to see covered?
  • If you actually delivered all that training, how much safer, more compliant, more effective, and more cohesive would your driving team be?

In the retail world, more products, multiplied by even tiny sales volume in each, leads to huge profits. In the training world, the equation looks similar: more training, multiplied by several subject areas, leads to huge quality and efficiency improvements (and increased profitability as a result).