Democratized Insight

From Innovations, a website published by Ziff-Davis Enterprise from mid-2006 to mid-2009. Reprinted by permission.

One of the few segments of the IT industry that has stubbornly resisted the efficiencies of Moore’s Law is research. The services provided by big analyst firms like Gartner and Forrester Research are a $3 billion industry that still conducts business pretty much the same way it did 20 years ago. High-priced analysts using the phone and the speaking circuit to tap into what’s on the minds of their IT management customers. Clients pay five- and six-figure annual fees to tap into their insight. A few prominent opinion-leaders affect the path of billions of dollars in IT investment.

Now David Vellante is disrupting that model. His is the kind of Web 2.0 project that just might cause the big players to re-evaluate their value propositions. That could be very good for customers.

Vellante knows the research business. For years he ran the largest division of International Data Corp., a market intelligence firm whose opinions can  make or break companies. Vellante left IDC a few years ago to start Barometrix, an advisory firm focused on IT investment optimization. That team started Wikibon as an experiment nearly two years ago.

Wikibon uses Web 2.0 technology to turn the IT research model on its head. Its collaborative wiki engine makes it easy for a vast community of practitioners to share expertise and experience. It turns out that when you roll up all that information, you have a resource that helps people make the kinds of decisions that used to involve expensive analysts. And it’s all free.

Research Goes Open Source

Call it open source advice.  The first Wikibon community is centered on data storage, and more than 3,000 people have joined.  A core group of 30 to 40 independent consultants and experts use the site to share their advice with the broader community. Before Wikibon, they had no way to reach that audience of storage specialists. Now they give away advice in hopes of winning consulting business. Members get the benefit of their years of experience for free.

The bottoms-up model is incredibly cost-efficient. Wikibon has just three employees. Quality control is outsourced to the members, who have contributed some 20,000 articles and edits to the archive. This democratized approach “hasn’t been as much of a limitation as I expected,” Vellante told me.

And the value of the information is evidenced by the time members spend on the site. “It’s Facebook-like,” Vellante says.  “We’re getting 20 to 30 page views per visitor.”

Wikibon has now grown to the point that the team is beginning to carve the library into subsections; one new area focuses on data protection and another on storage networks.  The small company hopes to monetize its business through value-added programs, such as a new service that helps vendors qualify for energy rebate programs.

Wikibon epitomizes the innovative power of Web 2.0. In the traditional model, insight was communicated from the top down because that was the only affordable way to do it.  With thousands of experts now able to assemble an advisory resource of their own, the opportunity exists to flip that model.  “It feels disruptive,” Vellante says.

Communities like Wikibon won’t put Gartner out of business, but they provide an affordable alternative that will pressure the market leaders to innovate.  That’s the kind of disruption that we can all feel good about.