Chemistry’s Long Tail

Taken together, three books describe a future for working chemists who will need something different from their professional society

William F. Carroll

Business-oriented books are notorious for starting as a 5,000-word magazine piece on a single good idea that somehow gets inflated to 250 pages and sells for $24.95. But the essential idea is still important. And when taken together, the central ideas of three books-“The Long Tail” by Chris Anderson, “Free Agent Nation” by Daniel Pink, and “The Flight of the Creative Class” by Richard Florida-paint an intriguing picture of the future of work for chemists and foreshadow a new value proposition for the American Chemical Society.

In “The Long Tail,” Anderson argues: “A. If you can dramatically lower the cost of production and distribution, you can offer far more variety; B. given more variety and the tools to easily organize it for individual taste, people will increasingly revel in their differences rather than settling for their commonalities as in traditional blockbuster culture.”

As an example, he points to the fall in album/CD sales with the demise of Top 40 radio and the hit-centric music business. In its place is a vibrant market for individual song downloads or obscure CDs. These items may sell only a few copies each, but there are zillions of them. In total, these items constitute a significant part of the business in the area under the “long tail” of the distribution curve.

Essential to long-tail marketing is elimination of the friction associated with a traditional brick-and-mortar business. Using the author’s example, each walk-in store needs an inventory of prepackaged, preburned CDs with only one aggregation of songs. But selling music by the song satisfies the specific need of a customer; in effect, the book argues that economies of scale may exist, but they are the opposite of the economies of true market demand.

Anderson describes how three forces drive the long tail. First, democratization of content production-anyone can be a star by making music on a home computer or short films through a camcorder or cell phone. Second, democratization of distribution through content aggregators-Amazon, eBay, and iTunes collect diverse content and make it easy to access and to buy just what you need. Finally, connection of supply and demand through recommenders who help individuals filter the raft of content. Search engines like Google or recommenders like bloggers or even the “people who bought … also bought” tips at Amazon help to direct people to what they want and make the frictionless system serve the supply-demand chain.

Pink, the author of “Free Agent Nation,” was a speechwriter in Vice President Al Gore’s office. When the stress of the job drove him to illness, he decided to hang his own shingle and peddle his capabilities to other places as a “free agent.”

Then, just as you tend to notice all the Honda Accords on the road after you recently bought one, Pink started to notice all the independent contractors in the world. And while there is little reliable data on how many free agents there truly are, Pink notes that the largest private employer in the U.S. is the temporary agency Manpower. He argues that the “free agent nation” is the logical aggregated response to a world with little employee-company loyalty populated by millennials-those born between 1982 and 2000-who are looking for a better work-life balance. Pink says, “The dream of America’s young people? … to create a gig on their own terms-often on the World Wide Web.”

In “Flight of the Creative Class,” Florida notes that about 30% of the modern workforce constitutes the creative class: people who make their living through ideas and whose basic tool is their brain. Socially, Florida laments that not everyone is a member of the creative class and that this is a failing of our educational and cultural infrastructure.

The creative class consists of people who are not tethered to a place; rather, they can set up shop and find work wherever they choose, commuting physically or electronically as appropriate. Florida notes two consequences: First, the creative class will congregate in cities-San Francisco, Dublin, Singapore, New York-that offer the diversity of culture and opportunity they find attractive, and those cities will flourish. Second, and a corollary, they will leave cities and, for that matter, countries that do not offer diversity. He argues that there will be a “reverse brain drain” from the U.S. as the world’s best and brightest perceive that we are less welcoming than we once were and choose neither to come nor to stay.

Together, these ideas deliver an interesting message: The future belongs to creative free agents who will disconnect work from the brick-and-mortar restriction of an office. Freed from the tyranny of place, they can choose to be anywhere. They will need to market their capabilities aggressively, but they will probably not do so to the masses. Their target will be the small subset of employers who need exactly what they have. Employer and employee will find each other via the Internet, through the work of aggregators and recommenders, or by word-of-mouth and personal networks.

How does this relate to us? Chemists are undoubtedly creative. But can they free themselves from the bricks and mortar of laboratories, offices, and employers? Succinctly, can creative chemists survive as free agents and does chemistry have a long tail?

I think they can and it does, driven by at least three trends: age demographics, professional specialization, and the globalization of science. We know from statistics and anecdote that it is difficult for more mature and experienced (read: highly paid) chemists to leave one job and find another, similar, full-time job. Yet those who study demographics tell us there is a generational “cold shower” coming for companies as their older workers retire. Companies must plan for generational changeover, and so must individuals.

Forward-looking companies can do so by structuring work assignments and hours so that an older employee can “downshift” responsibilities, work part-time, and mentor those who follow and still make a contribution.

On the other hand, an employee who is too expensive for one company as a full-time staffer might not be too expensive for five as a free agent. A career of accumulated knowledge is the seedbed of free agency.

I have seen this happen with midcareer professionals as well as those who are more mature. Having gained a particular expertise and professional specialty, they trade the daily grind for a monetarily riskier but individually more satisfying regime. As they leverage what they know, along the way they learn other things and add them to their menu of skills and services.

In both of these cases, we’re probably not talking about working in a laboratory. There is an irreducible minimum of bricks and mortar that goes with the business of chemistry and research. But as InnoCentive and Nine Sigma have demonstrated, lots of problems can be thought out profitably as desk chemistry before moving them to the bench.

The academic environment is also becoming more free-agent based. Tenured positions are decreasing; the trend toward utilizing adjuncts and instructors, especially for introductory courses, will continue to increase. Gaining experience and good reviews as a teacher provides leverage for finding another position; it is to a university’s advantage to find those quality teachers. Chemists in search of instructor positions can seek them and be found via chemistry’s long tail.

And exactly how might that happen? Just as the long tail allows one to buy that obscure CD, it can allow an individual to market skills to a specific audience. We’ve started to think about this within ACS. Recently we launched a new program called ChemInsight (www.ChemInsight.org), which uses our network to match chemists who have an interest in becoming expert witnesses with companies or law firms that need specific expertise. In this model, ACS is an aggregator, and it also helps to filter and connect supply and demand.

Personal branding is critical to a free agent. The career of the future will be built by accumulating skills, succeeding, and making oneself known in the marketplace. In a way, it is the direct opposite of the now-obsolete find a good company and burrow in for life approach to employment that many people my age took. And it utterly depends upon creating and nurturing a personal network.

Mildred Culp wrote about this in her March 4 column in the Dallas Morning News. She introduced William Arruda of Reach Communications (www.reachbrandingclub.com). Arruda says: “In the new world of work, jobs will come looking for you. Job seekers will move from being hunters to being hunted, so they need to make sure they can be found.”

Arruda says getting “hunted” starts by networking, developing an online presence, and getting exposure for your ideas-“taking a stand.” He adds, “You need to offer something valuable and differentiated.”

Differentiation also drives ACS’s potential contributions to the third trend. As science globalizes, funding will increase for scientists in rapidly developing countries. As journals publish more articles from geographically diverse authors, scientists want to meet and associate with potential correspondents or collaborators from around the world.

Just as students have found ways to connect via MySpace and Facebook and businesspeople find one another through LinkedIn and other networking sites, ACS has a unique opportunity to create the world’s leading peer-to-peer network of chemical scientists. The network itself will be ACS’s 21st-century “killer app.”

Whenever the way we used to do things runs up against the way we will do them in the future, it is like a cold front meeting warm, moist air: stormy. On the other hand, times of great change such as these are also times of great opportunity. ACS has the opportunity to catalyze the future of work in chemistry by understanding and acting on these three essential ideas. In so doing it can redefine the value proposition for all professional societies.

As chemists, we have the opportunity-regardless of where and how we work today-to imagine ourselves over the long term as creative free agents and position ourselves to mine the potential of chemistry’s long tail.

William F. Carroll served as president of ACS in 2005 and is active in ACS governance. He’s also a vice president with Occidental Chemical.

Views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

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4 Responses to “Chemistry’s Long Tail”

  1. crlytle Says:

    For a long time, the extra expense of shipping costs kept me returning to the “brick and mortar” stores for music. Two separate factors collided to get me onto the long tail: inventory and population. Population is an easy one: if you’re not in an “alternate time niche,” it’s a zoo getting anywhere or parking anywhere. Inventory means the hassle of having, let’s say, five area outlets (in various malls, etc.) and carrying inventory only for three. The ever-repeated phrase “just let me call the XXX store” drove me nuts. If you won’t keep it in stock, don’t sell it. Friends tell me this comes from two factors: the high cost of inventory and the Deming/WallMart concept of just in time delivery.

    I was in the process of unwillingly collecting a PILE of CDs, of which I was interested in only one (two at most) songs in each CD. Along comes my son, who introduced me to iTunes. Gone, all gone: driving, malls, not in stock, shipping costs, mountains of CDs.

    I’ve turned into a “longtailer” without even realizing it. Now, if they could just digitize songs w/o the occurence of those pesky, short gaps of silence.

  2. Bill Carroll Says:

    Thanks for your comment–your experience is exactly what Chris Anderson is talking about. And I think it has application–even in Chemistry–well beyond just your CD experience (I’m an i-Tunes user myself for the same reason).

  3. Rich Apodaca Says:

    Chemistry is a Long Tail activity – take away the aggregators and the system stops working. Services like CAS and Beilstein are to Chemistry what Flickr is to photos:

    http://depth-first.com/articles/2007/08/27/the-long-tail-and-chemistry-why-so-many-acs-meeting-talks-are-uninteresting

  4. Bill Carroll Says:

    Didn’t see your comment until just now, and I agree with it. I’m hoping that as we get the ACS Network running and populated it helps some of us who are not blockbusters find one another more easily.

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