VC at SoftTech and co-founder of Huddle, Andy McLoughlin now has the enviable task of overviewing what’s coming next in the tech, developer tools, mobile apps and overall productivity space. He shares his views on the future of work, tech and people with CRF:
You’re one of the veterans in the productivity space, can you share with us the high level patterns that you’ve seen and where they’re going?
One of the biggest macro changes is the focus on simplicity. I think there has been a trend with mobile and richer UI that people felt that the more they had to play with, the more they had to try and use it but what we’re seeing, not just in the productivity space, but across almost every type of app is a movement towards ‘let’s be simple.’ A lot of the apps now that are doing really great jobs, almost have no UI and the subject is focused around messaging, interacting as if you would with SMS. So the apps that can take that messaging and add in richer data which addresses the question of ‘what do you actually need to get done’ are the ones that will be successful.
Why the focus and subsequent boom on messaging, which, when you look at work it’s so much more than just communication?
I think because work, for most people, is about dealing with other people and the simplest way to communicate is still to shoot out a short form message. Which is why we’ve seen IM go through a million different changes of costume, but at the end of the day it’s still the same thing underneath and keeps coming back. If you look at the top ten apps in the app store, at least six of them are communication-centric.
What’s broken in productivity and in work right now from a tech perspective?
I think it’s often still too hard to get people to change their behaviour and I think again that’s why something based around messaging is easier to adopt because it doesn’t require a change in behaviour. I think about a lot of what we did with Huddle – and I’ve seen it with Dropbox, Box, and every other system – whereby if you can get the users onto the platform there’s a huge amount of benefit but people would revert back to the old pattern of, for example, emailing files around. People would email files around ten people, ten people would make their changes and then I’d get ten versions back and I’d have to spend a day sorting the document out. Teams would always say that they understood that it was an issue but then did it anyway because it was just too easy. I think the biggest challenge for any collaboration/productivity company is how you get people over that real hump to move forward and reap the benefits of using a real system.
So if the issue is human behaviour, are the tools that we’re seeing dominating the market-place right now actually enforcing bad behaviour?
Yes they are and I think that the real power will come when you can couple two of the platforms together where you can have conversations in a very natural way, attach files and share, yet the files are instantly placed into a logical place where you can then go and find them afterwards. This highlights an issue that in the early days we saw with Yammer – it was so easy to get content in but all that happened was that you ended up with this big bucket of files with no structure and unless you know the exact title of the document or what was in there, it was very hard to find.
Is this where the concept for Huddle really grew?
Yes. It was always my view that people need to find things and discover their data in different ways, so you have the ‘browsers’, who need to view a formal structure, a hierarchy that they can click through, you have the ‘searchers’, people that have in the back of their mind what it is that they want to discover, you have the people that rely on serendipity and they’re looking for some smart algorithm to surface the content up for them and then you have the people who want to discover the time based activity, the curious people who want to look at what’s happened across the organisation over the last day and find information from there. Not everyone will do just that one thing but everyone has that one form of behaviour that they generally revert back to.
I’m a browser so when I was designing Huddle, yes we put in the time based activity, we put in the search and serendipity, but when you’re dealing with what is effectively a file saving structure in the cloud, that tends to be the way that people would first think about accessing things. Right or wrong, that’s how it went.
What was always on our minds was that we weren’t just designing tools for the computer literate between 25-35 in London or Silicon Valley, we were designing tools that anyone in any office or corporation around the world could access and use.
Do you think that the productivity space is moving towards a partnership phase where a lot of those companies are going to start pairing up as opposed to competing against each other?
Yes, I think you can imagine a world whereby there’s a lot of companies coming together either through partnership or something more formal over the next few years, then it’s the question of who can get big enough, quickly enough, so that they become the consumer rather than the company that gets consumed.
There are three thousand products trying to perfect human behaviours in the productivity space. Do you think that it’s going to take one product to entirely disrupt the space in the same manner that Airbnb has done to the hotel space and Uber has done to the taxi space?
I think one of the reasons that the productivity space is so fragmented is because so many of the tools are servicing a particular niche or industry. Tools often exists for the particular type of work that exists in each, and while you could argue that there may be one player that successfully works for everyone but that’s a huge ask when we’re talking about addressing hundreds of millions of people across hundreds of different industries. Workflows for construction for example, are hugely different to productivity for healthcare but both are massive industries which probably wouldn’t, without huge customisation, be able to adopt something that has been built in a generic way.
So right now the tools are being built around work functions – tasks, meetings, etc. So the key shift is going to be more industry specific…
If you cast your mind back over the last five years or so, there were players who were trying to do a bit of everything, collaboration tools that have meetings and tasks and generally what we saw was that they were not as successful as the players that focused on doing one thing really, really well. What we haven’t seen yet is the next generation of product where someone has come out and been able to build truly great technology quickly enough to create an entire suite that is better than this other myriad of solutions. And with all of these tools having APIs that can integrate with each other, the experience doesn’t need to be bad when you choose five different point tools as opposed to just choosing one. In-fact, much of what we talked about when building Huddle was around why would you choose to buy from a Microsoft or IBM when you could take your pick from different individual vendors and select the best tools for your company?
There’s a lot of talk about AI, can you see a point in the distant future where you could say that AI could do the job as well as a human?
AI is interesting but I still that we’re a long way away from that. I think what’s more likely in the short to medium term, and we’re seeing companies addressing this right now, is: ‘can AI help you to do your job better?’ It might be by surfacing up the content that it thinks you need to work on, or by helping you prioristise your day and by helping you to get more done. I think the challenge there is the same as in any collaboration tool – there’s a step up, a hurdle you have to get over before you can realise the utility from it.
I think we need to see proof from one business that it can be done and I don’t think that that will be an independent player. Rather, I think it will be one of the big companies that will build their own and release it; you can have a Google or Facebook AI for work for example, or it will be one of the big companies buying one of the early-stage independents and rolling it into their product.
Let’s look at the human; ultimately people want to be happy. How much responsibility do software and system creators carry for happiness? Can happiness be created through a tool?
I don’t think that software can fix a fundamentally unhappy workplace, but I think what it can do is provide a cue to give feedback or praise. Think about the software you love, twitter and Facebook for example, you can get almost instant feedback from people you know – or may not even know – to tell you that they like something you’ve done. One of the issues with work is that we generally don’t get that. A feedback loop might be every quarter or more likely be six months to a year. Your boss – who might be disconnected from the work you’re doing – will have to appraise you on it based on untimely information, and you might have to dwell on your thoughts and concerns for months before you’re heard. But the way that praise and feedback can be given within the tools you’d be using would be really powerful.
Feedback ultimately has to be traced back to objectives, so how do you connect those dots?
I think you can have two kinds of feedback when you’re working with colleagues – you can get constructive, objective feedback related to the project you’re collaborating on, but you can also get random feedback from people who aren’t necessarily working on the same task at hand but they’ve seen what you’re doing and they’ve enjoyed it, they’ve liked it. Constructive feedback. We live in a fast-moving, rapid feedback environment of open plan offices and collaboration. Feedback is readily given and is expected to make employees feel valued. It’s all about moving forwards in a positive manner, through trial, error and feedback.