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My best explanation of Wikistrat yet

(Fb x Wp = MMOC) = CIE

Start-ups are curious things. They tend to morph right before your eyes, especially in the first stage in which family and friends tend to dominate the proceedings, with the occasional visionaries sucked in (as visionaries are wont to be).  It’s figuratively, “You supply the barn and I’ll bring some old sheets for the curtains and once we figure out who plays all the parts, we can put on a show!” In short, it’s all one grand experiment that attempts to answer the question, “Can we see our way to a product with a market and, if so, can we build a viable company around that product?”

The first stage is a heady mess, but incredibly exciting. It usually starts with a fabulous idea that requires downstream definition (“Okay, but where will this take us?”), which is typically achieved through real-world trial and error (“First we tried this, then that, and finally we locked onto the path.”) The key is the flexibility to say, “This isn’t working, but here’s the next logical attempt at something that might.”  How many times do you turn that crank?  My experience across ten such entities going back to 1987 is that 5-6 is the mean, with – naturally – foundational clients driving the process. 

Getting to those initial clients marks your departure from early-stage to mid-stage: you’ve had your proof-of-concept experience and figured out your basic product development and you’re heading into initial engagements.  Trick is, by then, your company needs to have some identity, to include enough of the right people in the right spots to execute those initial engagements with real confidence, meaning no wasted opportunities.

I was fortunate enough to be sucked into the Wikistrat world just after CEO Joel Zamel and DTO Daniel Green had decided to move off their first iteration (simply selling the wiki platform), and with them I participated in three more turns of the crank: the initial subscription period (CoreGap Report) that followed my laborious creation of the wiki/scenario-based GLOMOD (globalization model), the first efforts at mustering distributed simulations with a proto-community of early-joining analysts/interns, and then the – arguably audacious – decision to conduct the international grand strategy competition to jumpstart the community ethos, create some buzz on the whole crowdsourcing analytic dynamic, and conduct junior-to-mid-level recruitment that would fuel both.

The success of the competition really marked the beginning of the end of the early-stage development and the start of the mid-stage effort. After regaling each other with various attempted descriptions and analogies and heroic tales of what Wikistrat was and would eventually become, our dialogue – both internal and external – began to coalesce around three primary components.

Now, understand that what I’m about to say is my best description but not necessarily Joel’s or Daniel’s, and that, by presenting my version here, I’m not pretending that the dialogue is consummated, because start-ups simply don’t unfold like that.  More turns of the crank invariably happen.  It’s just that they’ll get smaller in the months ahead – more course corrections than setting out on new vectors.  And given that Joel and Daniel were only at it for yeah many months before they pulled me aboard and that was roughly a year ago, that’s a pretty sweet record – getting through the first stage in two years or less.  Not warp speed, mind you.  More like getting your Master’s degree on schedule and hitting your PhD program with advanced standing, understanding that I purposefully reach for an analytic analogy here.

So how would I describe Wikistrat as we embark on our midstage effort?

First, let me explain how I accumulated my “high concept” definitions along the way. By “high concept” I mean, a buzz phrase or mash-up of buzz phrases that captures the gist, like when Emily and I were watching James Cameron’s “Avatar” and I turned to her in the Imax and offered “The Matrix meets . . .” and she blurted out “Ferngully!”

Early on in conversations with Joel, I started with this bit, “Facebook meets Wikipedia.”  By that I meant two distinct things mashed up: Facebook referred to a global community of strategic thinkers, while Wikipedia referred to both the wiki-based strategic planning process and the under-construction GLOMOD, otherwise known the ultimate wiki on globalization itself or, in my initial upload, my professional body of thought transferred to the web to serve as original source code for what we know will eventually evolve far past my thinking to something a whole lot larger and more valuable – the rich and deep canvas against which we conduct simulations.

Now, the minute I blurted this out, I was pretty proud of myself, even if it presented the usual characteristics of my shorthand lexicon in that it was a bit superficial but highly accurate (my particular skill).  Then again, that’s the whole point of the high concept definition: namely, it cuts to the chase and its highly evocative.  You get it the minute you hear it.

The problem with this initial bit is that I would immediately follow it up with the refrain of, “But how to we make either of those items pay for themselves?”  Of course, Joel and Dan were thinking all along about the simulationss as products, but how to triangulate between community (Facebook) and environment (Wikipedia) into executing agent?

Joel and Dan had been mulling from the start about how the wiki-based approach would revolutionize the consulting business, taking the black-box methodology (you tell the consultancy your problem, they mull your world and future, and then out pops their answer, the creation of which made them smarter but doesn’t exactly empower you beyond their advice and revealed rationale). Their first iteration was selling the platform itself, but traditional consultancies weren’t interested in re-engineering what they felt wasn’t broken, even as they would readily admit the model represented the future of their industry, which, by all accounts - and my personal experience - is experiencing a serious shake-out since the global financial crisis began in 2008 (a true killing-of-the-dinosaurs-effect by that “meteor,” with no clear definition yet of who the “mammals” are, even as SaaS* providers look the most vibrant).  [*service as a solution]

Once it became clear that selling the platform wasn’t the way, the next iteration explored the notion of replicating the basic outlines of a traditional consultancy and then using the platform as a competitive advantage. But here was the problem with that: it didn’t sufficiently leverage the crowdsourcing dynamic.  It was your experienced and well-leveraged traditional consulting team versus our lean but wiki-enabled team – too close to a fair fight to be compelling.

Enter the grand strategy competition, where our subtext was, “Can we show how smart-but-relatively-inexperienced newcomers to the field can, en masse, tackle a complex future projection and really run that beast to ground in impressive fashion?”

For those of you who followed the competition, you know the answer. No, it wasn’t all “wheat,” but the “chaff” quotient dropped radically with each week, and the overall product was incredibly rich, especially considering the variety of simulations we crammed into the effort.  By my count, all sorts of legit professional products are easily generated from the competition, and we weren’t really even customizing with a customer in mind.

It thus proved, to a pleasantly surprising degree (for me, at least) the viability of a phrase I had started using last spring after Joel and Daniel confronted me with their idea of the competition: we are building the world’s first MMOC, as in, a massively multiplayer online consultancy.  So, it’s not just the community (Facebook of strategists) and it’s not just the environment (Wikipedia/GLOMOD), it’s the MMOC that combines the two into a product-offering machine.

I had written about this back in “Blueprint for Action” (2005) in my concluding bit called, “Headlines from the Future” (last entry for the 2020 timeframe):

“Online Game Triggers Dictator’s Departure; Stunning Victory of ‘People’s Diplomacy’”

The complexity of planning postconflict stabilization operations in advance is daunting, simply because of the huge number of variables involved. It’s not a matter of simply crunching numbers, but rather anticipating the free play of so many actors—your own military, allied civilians, enemy soldiers and insurgents, the local population, and so on. In many ways, this kind of complex simulation is well given over to massive multiplayer online games (MMOG), something I see both the military and the U.S. Government turning toward as a tool for predictive planning. Imagine if, months prior to the invasion, the Pentagon had started a MMOG that modeled Iraq immediately following the regime’s collapse, allowing hundreds or even thousands of chosen experts (or even just enthusiastic gamers!) from the world over to fill out the multitude of possible characters involved on both sides. Imagine what insights could have been learned beforehand. Now jump ahead fifteen years and think about how sophisticated such MMOGs might be, and how they could be used to preplay—for obvious consumption by both the global community and the targeted state in question—a rogue-regime takedown and subsequent occupation, perhaps even to the effect of convincing the regime to abandon its untenable situation in advance of actual war being waged. Far-fetched? Not in a world where uncredentialed Internet bloggers can force Senate majority leaders and major network news anchors to resign in disgrace at lightning speed.

And yes, I had thought of this the first time Joel and Daniel laid out their vision at the airport in NYC last fall. It just took a while for the three of us “blind men” – along with Wikistrategist Elad Schaffer – to feel up that “elephant” enough times to realize what we had here.

Back to the competition: it wasn’t just the executing-the-simulation-through-crowdsourcing dynamic that was proven there. What impressed me even more was the immediate sense of community that was created: participants really got into the process, regardless of their level of success in scoring.  It energized them and produced its own individual benefits of the blade-sharpening and unfolding-your-wings varieties.  I felt the same way about the judging: it was simply fun, in addition to being hard work and engrossing and enriching.  At the end of it, it didn’t just tickle my fancy.  My gut professional reaction was, “I could bundle this whole beast into an impressive book.”

Of course, so could anyone else who worked the competition – once they approximate my writing skill-set (not a simple matter, I would maintain). And there is beauty in that too: the Wikistrat universe is far more than a blade-sharpening and marketing-of-skills universe, it’s an elevating-your-thinking environment – no matter your level of experience.

Moreover, the sum product of the competition fed the GLOMOD beautifully.  It was like adding an entire new floor to the building in one fell swoop.

Win-win-win, but likewise a delineator of what we had here in this three-legged stool:  Facebook + Wikipedia = MMOC, or global community of strategists + global model of globalization = powerfully crowdsourcing simulations for a wide variety of clients.

In later conversations with one of the competition participants, who’s now in the process of stepping into an advisory role for Wikistrat (based on past-life experiences) even as she joins our global lineup of analysts (she’s a grad student in international relations), I let out the final high-concept definition: that Facebook + Wikipedia = MMOC constellation equates to a private-sector equivalent of what the CIA always should have been for the US Government – an intelligence exchange.  Wikistrat, in its full flowering, is a Central Intelligence Exchange on globalization across all of its major domains, meaning it connects clients with the best crowdsourced advice out there.  It is the “beast” (GLOMOD) that’s feed by the smart mob (community of strategists) and put to specific use (“the drill”) for interested clients. It beats traditional black-box consulting by being interactive, real-time, fully transparent, archivable, and red-teamed to a point of analytical robustness that cannot be achieved BOGGSAT-style (bunch of guys/gals sitting around a table).  It gives the client a world-class, throw-everyone-at-the-problem capability at an incredibly affordable price, making Wikistrat a desirable add-on capability for existing consultancies (dubbed, “channel partners”) looking to bring new-but-lean capabilities to clients struggling with globalization’s mounting complexity. Likewise, if you’re an analytic shop in the public sector facing budget cuts, Wikistrat has just given you the “more” capability to go along with your “less” budget (as in, “do more with less!”).

Why it matters for us to have this self-awareness.  The Facebook dynamic requires its own dynamics, skilled leadership, etc.  As does the Wikipedia/GLOMOD bit (my proximate role) and the MMOC (my ultimate role).  Making the whole CIE dynamic happen is a meta-level responsibility not to be underestimated either.  Knowing all this guides who we bring on in the future, because if you don’t know what your start-up is all about, you will flounder around when it comes to ramping up personnel and capability.  The good news is, of course, that ramping up the global community of strategists itself is a fairly simple – and cheap – affair. They go into your pool and they’re activated as jobs arise – a virtual labor force that can be activated discretely and at will.  But yes, some management and operational structure will need to be built around them, so – again – having a good sense of what that “elephant” is now is crucial. 

That’s it.  That’s my – for now – best riff on what Wikistrat is and is becoming. I didn’t put the whole package together in one conversation until I was chatting with one of our mentors while driving up to Green Bay Sunday morning to hit the Packer Hall of Fame prior to Aaron Rodger’s historic performance (4 passing TDs, 400-plus passing yards, and two rushing TDs – first time ever for an NFL QB in 90 years of league play), which just goes to show you two things: 1) it takes a while to construct complex explanations, and 2) I think best when I’m talking – even better than writing (which is why I have to explain something several times before I typically author it).

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Reader Comments (5)

Tom, Thanks for the run up on Wikistrat
Extroverts need good listeners who are patient with us as we ramble though our thoughts. DragonSpeak on my computer is a great "listener" and it works well for me on 1 hour plus commutes or road trips. I save my monologue to a thumb drive and clean it up once I'm settled where ever I wind up.
Some times it is a conversation via phone (hands free) and I capture my end of the conversation and if the other party says something of particular interest I might repeat it just to get it on the computer. Some ideas are archived for later use and still others see the light of day.

When are you coming back to the JHU programs? Your views would be very valuable to budget related policies.

October 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G in Baltimore

Congratulations on Wikistrat.

Just a few words of advice. Please when running simulations on post-conflict stabilisation, seek advice from people who actually have experience running successful post-conflict stabilisation (hint: the excludes almost everyone from the State Department, the DoD or even from the West).

The fiasco in Afghanistan and Iraq shows conclusively that the US (and the West) lack those skills. You might need to pick the brains of people with administrative experience in India (most of the Third World was colonised by the British and in the Indian Civil Service provided the template for most Anglophone Colonial Civil Services). I.e. Indians are best placed to explain to you how the much of the Third World is run / should be run, you can then extrapolate from there.

A smart Sri Lankan will provide useful lessons on how to deal with counter-insurgency. A Chinese would best placed to explain you to get infrastructure up and running as quickly and cheaply as possible and a Rwandan would have much to teach you about post-conflict reconciliation. Finally, a Bangladeshi would bring a wealth of experience on empowering Muslim women.

Sadly, these people don't tend to either be sophisticated, use snazzy internet tools or speak much English, but trust me, their insights could be revolutionary.

I doubt you'll ever be able to assemble such a collection of individuals, so your analysis will miss that extra tick.

Anyway, great job.

October 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMaduka


That's been my advice on successful postconflict stabilizations for close to a decade now: you seek advice from players who just conquered the roughly same development space. Since that experience is almost a century past for the West, the logical integrators of this age are those who just did similar things at home (China, India) and thus aren't intimidated by the various deficiencies in places like Africa.

No offense, but most of your advice here is stuff I've already written in books. You just haven't read my books and assume no Westerner is capable of such thinking.

Conversely, great minds think alike.

October 6, 2011 | Registered CommenterThomas P.M. Barnett

I am sorry, didn't know you put together those thoughts in your books.

I admit, I haven't read your books. In any case, I will check them up on amazon.

October 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMaduka

Not an issue, Maduka. Happy for the connection.

October 7, 2011 | Registered CommenterThomas P.M. Barnett

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