New Yorker business columnist James Surowiecki published a bestselling book in 2005 called The Wisdom of Crowds. The book's thesis is that a large and diverse group of regular people can reliably make sounder decisions than a small group of experts.
Through examination of historical and scientific anecdotes, Surowiecki plopped an old idea into the center of today’s zeitgeist, and his timing couldn’t have been better. Had the work been published 30 years prior, a general audience might have found the concepts too abstract or unbelievable, but to the BlackBerry-toting, Yahoo-searching intercontinental communicator, the counter-intuitive notion felt familiar.
The fact that crowdsourcing continues to find new applications is proof that crowds can wield unique talents given the proper scaffolding.
Traffic apps like Waze use the geographic diversity of its users to quickly aggregate road conditions; websites like Kickstarter let the people decide which products companies should make; and social news websites like Reddit use crowds to write and sort news headlines. Even something so serious as geopolitical consulting has a pseudo-crowdsourced consultancy and war gaming platform, found in a company called Wikistrat.
There are a few things that make Wikistrat different from traditional consultancy services. The first is the source of the company’s information. Wikistrat doesn’t try to cull wisdom from the masses, but it does use a broader pool of experts than most – a global network of more than 2,000 experts can be deployed to answer big questions. How will California’s water shortage and global climate change affect the farming industry? How will immigrant population growth in Texas impact the national economy? How will the ongoing Ukraine-Russia war change the global cyberlandscape?
Wikistrat can answer questions like these faster and more comprehensively than anyone else, said Chief Strategy Officer Shay Hershkovitz, and it has for such organizations as the U.S. Navy, the Air Force and the Department of Defense.
“What we’re trying to do is we acknowledge that the traditional model of consultancies is obsolete, given the nature of threats,” Hershkovitz said. “Surprises [the] modern world brings us … things change quickly and, bearing this in mind, we leverage the wisdom of the crowd of experts in a relatively quick turnaround. The traditional model of consultancy basically lies on the wisdom of the several, the few. These consultancies take very smart people, but they will take three, four, five. We can take hundreds of such subject matter experts from various fields and in a relatively quick time frame, we can execute research and multi-dimensional analysis.”
Wikistrat also differs in its format. As the company name indicates, Wikistrat uses a wiki-style platform that allows clients to watch how their team of experts is collaborating, collecting data and commenting on the issue in real time. The wiki data is archived for the client, and is also accompanied by traditional report elements like an executive summary or PowerPoint presentation. But the value, Hershkovitz said, comes in the breadth and depth of the data provided.
“The amount of knowledge that is being produced in such an engagement is huge,” Hershkovitz said. “You basically cannot compare it to any other traditional model of research or consultancy simply because [of] the idea of the many. Normally, other consultancies, to produce such a large scope of research it will take them months, sometimes even a year.”
In addition to research, Wikistrat also employs its expert network and online platform to run role-playing games that allow clients to prepare for a given scenario, such as an inbound cyberattack or a military airstrike gone wrong. Hershkovitz provided the fictional example of a U.S. air strike intended for a terrorist camp, instead accidentally hitting a civilian facility in Chad, Africa.
“This is a tragic incident, but from a management perspective, this is a PR crisis because the U.S. government needs to handle this crisis quickly,” Hershkovitz explained. “So what we have asked our crowd of experts is, given this scenario, to play the various elements in the field. It can be the government of Chad, it can be the U.N., the U.S. government, NGOs, and even the civilian population. Public opinion is expressed and so on. Essentially what we are delivering our clients is the ability to simulate a future crisis.”
Senior Analyst Douglas Olin said the analysis and war games provided by Wikistrat – which he helps develop – offer a depth of knowledge and transparency unparalleled in the consulting industry. Olin said he’s done it both ways, using the traditional model followed by companies like Eurasia Group, McKinsey & Company, Stratfor and Control Risks – Wikistrat’s competition -- but Wikistrat’s modern method of research yields better results for less money.
“The other aspect that’s interesting about it is that not only are main themes illuminated, but you can get the opportunity to look at a lot of outliers because you’re bringing a lot of different people into the analysis, and sometimes just the observation about whether or not a particular topic is generating a high degree of focus or a huge range of potential outcomes is interesting in and of itself,” Olin said. “You have to sort between the wheat and the chaff, but still, I’ve been doing analysis for the government since the late 1970s, and you get a range of inputs to a problem on the Wikistrat platform that is broader and faster than I’ve seen in any other environment.”
Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.