The biggest consultancy firms—the McKinseys and Janeses of the world—make many millions of dollars predicting the future and writing what-if reports for clients. This model is built on the idea that those companies know best—and that information and ideas should be handed down from on high.
But one consulting house, Wikistrat, is upending the model: Instead of using a stable of in-house analysts, the company crowdsources content and pays the crowd for its time. Wikistrat's hundreds of analysts—primarily consultants, academics, journalists, and retired military personnel—are compensated for participating in what they call "crowdsourced simulations." In other words, make money for brainstorming.
According to Joel Zamel, Wikistrat's founder, approximately 850 experts in various fields rotate in and out of different simulations and project exercises for the company. While participating in a crowdsourced simulation, consultants are are paid a flat fee plus performance bonuses based on a gamification engine where experts compete to win extra cash. The company declined revealing what the fee scale is, but as of 2011 bonus money appears to be in the $10,000 range.
Zamel characterizes the company's clients as a mix of government agencies worldwide and multinational corporations. The simulations are semi-anonymous for players; consultants don't know who their paper is being written for or who the end consumer is, but clients know which of Wikistrat's contestants are participating in the brainstorm exercise. Once an exercise is over, the discussions from the exercise are taken by full-time employees at Wikistrat and converted into proper reports for clients.
"We've developed a quite significant crowd network and a lot of functionality into the platform," Zamel tells Fast Company. "It uses a gamification engine we created that incentivizes analysts by ranking them at different levels for the work they do on the platform. They are immediately rewarded through the engine, and we also track granular changes made in real time. This allows us to track analyst activity and encourages them to put time and energy into Wiki analysis." Zamel says projects typically run between three and four weeks, with between 50 and 100 analysts working on a project for generally between five and 12 hours per week. Most of the analysts, he says, view this as a side income on top of their regular work at day jobs but some do much more: Zamel cited one PhD candidate in Australia working 70 hours a week on one project instead of 10 to 15 hours.
Much of Wikistrat's output is related to current events. Although Zamel says the bulk of their reports are written for clients and not available for public consumption, Wikistrat does run frequent public simulations as a way of attracting publicity and recruiting talent for the organization. Their most recent crowdsourced project is called Myanmar Moving Forward and runs from November 25 to December 9. According to Wikistrat, they are asking their "Strategic community to map out Myanmar’s current political risk factor and possible futures (positive, negative, or mixed) for the new democracy in 2015. The simulation is designed to explore the current social, political, economic, and geopolitical threats to stability—i.e. its political risk—and to determine where the country is heading in terms of its social, political, economic, and geopolitical future."
Continuing with the MOOC's gaming motif, freelance consultants typically work on teams. One of Wikistrat's consultants, historian Timothy Nunan described how it works:
For those who aren’t familiar with this world, the gist of the competition is this: teams from various universities are assigned to play the role of a great power in the world system, like the USA, Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, India, or the EU (which we’re playing as). Unlike, say, a game of Risk or Diplomacy, where your actions in the course of the strategy simulation are closely tied with what other people do, Wikistrat is more of a policy-planning scenario. You try to identify what your power’s long-term interests are, what your ambitions are for the next, say, 25 years, and then defining a grand strategy for how you want to get there.
Zamel tells Fast Company that crowdsourcing gives his company a unique business model. As he put it, "the bread and butter of our reports up to date for us is defense—defense departments and ministries and other sub-departments across multiple countries dealing with long-range planning and short-term analysis." He also noted that Wikistrat works with "multinationals, mining companies, and energy firms targeting same security risks countries are concerned with." For them, Zamel believes crowdsourcing works as both a business model and methodology for a consulting practice.
Wikistrat's best known analysts and experts include chief analyst and national security pundit Thomas P.M. Barnett, foreign policy scholar Anne-Marie Slaughter, Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes, and counter-terrorism expert Daveed Gartenstein-Ross. Other simulations the organization has recently worked on that Zamel was able to discuss include the future of Al Qaeda, a thought exercise on "White House initiatives designed to recast America’s relationship with Latin America;" "Countering Conventional Wisdom: The Coming Resource Wars;" and a forecasting exercise on relations between Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.