One thing I’ve always liked about Spiceworks is its customer-oriented attitude. Every time I talk to the people at Spiceworks, I get the impression that “listening to the voice of the customer” is not just a bulletpoint in a marketing brochure but a real philosophy driving the company.

Jay HallbergOn July 24, 2008, Spiceworks rolled out a major initiative that continues this tradition. I had the chance to catch up with Jay Hallberg, Spiceworks’ cofounder and VP of Marketing (pictured at right), to learn more about how the company is incorporating crowdsourcing into its product. Here’s an excerpt of BNET’s definition of crowdsourcing:

“…the basic idea is to tap into the collective intelligence of the public at large to complete business-related tasks that a company would normally either perform itself or outsource to a third-party provider.”

First, I’ll back up a little and offer a brief overview of the Spiceworks application and describe how the company benefits from audience participation. (Disclosure notice: I have a contract with Spiceworks to write product buying guides.)

How Spiceworks users drive product development

The Spiceworks application is designed to let IT pros manage their networks. When the application was first released, it was primarily geared toward reporting on the current network status (it was somewhere between an automated inventory and a proper network monitor). The Spiceworks application has grown and expanded to become more of a one-stop application, yet it’s still not headed for the kitchen-sink status of enterprise software.

Spiceworks has always had a large amount of audience participation in its product. The company’s forums about the product have been very successful. From the beginning, Spiceworks has had its users suggest and vote on new features. Spiceworks is a good example of an agile project that can be driven by customers without a huge amount of one-on-one contact.

In late 2007 and early 2008, Spiceworks’ user base grew beyond 250,000, and Jay says the company hit a critical mass in which it became possible to let users drive even more of what was going on. He reports that, once a question is posted, it usually takes only a few minutes for good answers to start pouring in from other users.

How Spiceworks is opening up its ecosphere

Beginning July 24, 2008, Spiceworks is starting with various lists and other pieces of content that it or its partners produce and letting its users “take it over.” For example, Spiceworks might start with a guide to selecting e-mail software, and then let users put together their own list of favorite e-mail software packages. The company is also letting users take part in surveys and polls that are tied to the content.

One item I find especially interesting is the ability for a user who generates a report for their network to easily share it with other users. The user clicks a Share button in the application, and the application handles the rest. From there, anyone can download the report and add it to their local deployment. Users can Vote Up their favorite reports, and highly ranked reports will become part of the shipping product.

In a way, Spiceworks is providing a framework for users to “open source” select aspects of the product and the community in a controlled fashion. Spiceworks is providing good moderation of the user-generated content (Jay said that it is “a lot like gardening”). Spiceworks is making sure that the best user contributions get the spotlight so that other users can easily find and use them.

Why is this crowdsourcing approach different?

I asked Jay what makes this crowdsourcing approach significantly different from wikis, blogs, forums, newsgroups, and so on. He told me that there are two major differences: the focus on the SMB market and the integration with the Spiceworks application.

The Spiceworks application is extremely focused on a precise market: companies with 100 or fewer employees. In fact, most of the negative feedback I hear from people regarding the Spiceworks application is that it does not meet the needs of larger companies. As a result of this focus, the content and information in the Spiceworks community is very specialized: if you are an IT worker in that kind of environment, it is tailored to meet your needs. The Spiceworks application is tied directly to this information as well. Instead of going to a search engine and spending hours looking up data, culling out duplicate hits, and so on, it is all available directly where you need it most — in the Spiceworks application that you use to manage your network.

I am pretty curious to see how this approach turns out for Spiceworks.

Additional TechRepublic resources about Spiceworks