What a coincidence: Today I finally finished to read Chris Anderson's bestselling book "The Long Tail", and today Donal Reddington, editor of the MadeForOne blog, posted an extensive review of the book. Donal's review is worthwhile to read as it has a special focus on mass customization.
I enjoyed reading the book very much and recommend it to everyone interested in mass customization and open innovation. Even if the book is highly focused on digital goods, it provides a number of convincing arguments why firms need to find better answers on the growing heterogeneity of demand -- and what the role of users is to shape and provide this demand. But as Donal Reddington notes, The Long Tail is not a book on mass customization:
"It does provide examples of mass customization as evidence of the growing power of the tail, but it is principally about leveraging the potential of massive product variety.
The long tail concept presumes that the product is available - sometimes on a build-to-order basis, but more often from stocks already held. This aspect of the long tail idea is at odds with the mass customization idea, which presumes little or no finished stock inventory, with products being made only after they are sold. …
The growth of more ‘democratic’ markets is also shared between mass customization and the long tail. One example is the growth of peer production, where individual members of a large group propose new products (such as new music, Lego toys or t-shirt designs), which are then rated by their peers within the group. The most successful are then made available to the open market. This displays characteristics of both the long tail and mass customization. Also, the growth of the long tail make build-to-order more feasible in many markets. Lulu.com can publish a book for you and print copies in tiny numbers to fill orders on-demand."
I personally took away from the book:
-- The story of Sears, and how this company was founded 100 years ago to provide rural customers with more choice and variety;
-- A great argumentation regarding the "mass confusion" and "too much choice" debate: As Anderson correctly remarks, there is not too much choice, but just too little intelligent support and filtering helping users to deal with variety. This chapter of the book (the tenth) should be a must read for all people dealing with configuration systems for mass customization – as providing better choice for customers should be the core of any configuration toolkit.
-- The idea that measuring actual demand ex-post is better than today's dominant logic of forecasting and predicting demand by market research ex-ante. Anderson writes: "Rather than lumping consumers into predetermined demographic and psychographic categories, post-filters such as Netflix's customer recommendations treat them like individuals who reveal their likes and dislikes through their behavior." The same idea is the underlying logic of a co-design toolkit (when compared to a shelf with standard goods): Instead of making decisions which product configuration the majority of customers presumably would like, a co-design toolkits provides this choice to the customer.
The final chapter of the book, Anderson's glimpse into the future, tackles a topic that I have discussed several times in connection to mass customization (see earlier posting): the advent of rapid (digital) manufacturing technologies like laser sintering or 3D printing.
Donal Reddington: "Andersen rightly states that if digital manufacturing can be developed to output more complex products, then almost every market will become a digital market. In the same way that online music can be downloaded now, someday the design for pretty much anything else might be downloaded someday and manufactured at home. Then every market will be a long tail market, and the cost of carrying infinite variety of stock will be zero for everything."So: Read this book, buy a 3D printer, and start your own Long Tail economy.