Ahead of Future of Work Summit, we caught up with Peter Armstrong and Len Epp, co-founders of Dashcube, Innovation Sponsor of the event. In a fascinating, in-depth discussion, they explore their perspectives on the future workplace and technology, and their experience to date.
Peter Armstrong: At Future of Work, I am most looking forward to hearing the perspectives that different people we talk with have about the future of work. At Dashcube, we have been thinking about this for a long time, and building our thinking about the future of distributed collaboration into the product. We really value conferences such as Future of Work since they give us the chance to get out of the proverbial building and do the customer development process, talking with people and learning more about their business problems and testing our assumptions about what we are doing with our technology.
I believe the Future of Work means that distributed teams are not optional, and the tools and processes which need to evolve to support them can also be applied effectively to teams which have the luxury of being in the same building. I believe the Future of Work will be fantastic, since social forces such as so-called “millennial entitlement” will mean that people won’t settle for bad tools and oppressive processes. Fundamentally, the Future of Work will be about people, and about how better to use technology to connect people and then get out of the way.
Ovum: From a learning experience viewpoint, what has been your most valuable lesson in your working career, or your most successful failure?
Peter Armstrong: My most successful failure was trying to productize the concepts in my first book, Flexible Rails, into a commercial framework. While the framework was technically strong, largely due to the efforts of my cofounder, it failed spectacularly as a commercial product. However, the experience led to the formation of my boutique consultancy, which led to the creation of Leanpub, which led to me working with my old friend Len and to meeting Chris, and to us creating Dashcube together. In terms of lessons, the main lesson it taught me was that doing public-facing things that genuinely try to improve some small subset of the world can lead to totally unexpected successes with people you have never met.
Ovum: What technology would you like to see changing the way we do business in the future?
Peter Armstrong: I would love to see the Apple Watch and its inevitable imitators eliminate the security disaster and overstuffed wallet that is the reality with modern-day credit cards. Len wants it to open doors too, but if it just fixes payments then I’ll be happy. Paying for stuff is a disaster.
Ovum: Describe your ideal working environment 10 years from now?
Len Epp: Regarding wearables, I believe the biggest change in our working environments is that we are going to be using smartwatches as our keys, not just for unlocking doors, but also for unlocking our devices and even our apps. This will have a profound impact on the way every enterprise manages security for its people, physical assets, its IP and its data. Here’s a blog post I wrote a few weeks ago (before the Apple Watch launch) that goes into some more detail on how watches will become keys (and wallets): https://medium.com/@lenepp/why-smartwatches-should-be-keys-and-wallets-e141facb95ad
Ovum: What in your opinion will be the next big change in the way that we work and the way in which businesses engage with their employees – and specifically the way IT has to service their customers?
Peter Armstrong: Businesses need to realize that they need to market themselves to their existing employees far more than to prospective new ones.
Ovum: Will we ever move beyond email as a viable and reliable tool for business?
Len Epp: I believe the answer is yes, for internal purposes we will move well beyond email. This does not, however, mean we will replace email in other parts of our working lives.
In the not-too-distant future, internal communications within teams and even enterprises will be integrated into a network of people, plans, documents, digital assets and data. Essentially, there will be a “work network” within which people communicate in an inherently meaningful context.
This network establishes a very different environment from that of email, which by its nature multiplies contexts with each new thread, covering our working world with proliferating and unconnected message chunks, like colliding space junk. That’s why we spend so much time in email: we’re trying to only connect fragments of work set up in the isolation of email.
Now, imagine instead setting up a complex project in a robust planning app, and then having your whole team communicate about their work in the project structure itself, instead of in email. Rather than interrupting people for status updates on a task, you could just navigate to the task and see all the latest actions and communications. Importantly, these aren’t work-about-work updates: what you’d be seeing is real communication about the actual work being done by your team, in real-time.
This will have many advantages, including the establishment of real-time and retrospective visualizations of a company’s activity. Essentially, when people are communicating in the same network of things where they are planning and carrying out their work, you can get a “view from space” of your enterprise – and also a searchable and reviewable memory. Once people in the same enterprise stop working out of individual email silos, and start connecting their communications to nodes in the network (instead of writing subject lines), powerful information surfaces from the network, for free.
At the same time, email will still be useful when it comes to external communications, in particular when it comes to connecting with new contacts, interacting with counterparties, and engaging in communications that have special regulatory, procedural, or even legal importance.
But email will also remain important because individual information silos, used correctly, actually have a lot of value. I used to work in M&A for a global investment bank, and I remember once meeting, entirely by accident, a sales rep for the enterprise-wide document management system we used. The rep started complaining to me that people were *still* using email for document storage, shock horror. I tried explaining to him the reasons why we all did this.
- Email lets you store your own copies of documents the way you want to, according to the categories and messy-desk habits that suit your private preferences and individual interests.
- There’s a lot of contextual information in an email to help you remember it and find it, like time and date sent, sender, recipient, subject line, message body content, whether it has an email attachment, etc. The more contextual connections, the theory goes, the better the brain is at recalling things.
- Sending a document is perceived by people as an accountable action in a way uploading a document to a database is not. There’s an obvious and familiar double-entry aspect to email, since emails end up both in sent folders and in inboxes. In the enterprise, where there are regulations, bonus reviews, and even politics at work, this accountability is actually one of the most important aspects of email.
For most internal purposes our email accounts are like single-occupancy caves from which we are finally emerging to build more sophisticated spaces. But for the purposes of external communication and personal organization, email is more like the wheel: it can be improved by technological advances, but the basic idea here to stay.
Ovum: With collaboration being placed high on the agenda for most organisations, what would you say is the most common failure in executing new collaboration technology / tools in the enterprise?
Len Epp: The most common failure is a direct result of the perpetuation of a bad collaboration practice, which involves separating the planning or organization of our work from our communications about that same work.
This bad practice means that our communication tools are always out of sync with our planning tools. The consequence is that no one really trusts the planning tool, no matter how new it is, since it’s really our communications that represent the latest knowledge, decisions, and actions. It’s hard to collaborate effectively when our planning tools don’t reflect reality, and so we end up interrupting each other all the time in fragmented email threads, and resenting the time we waste updating our epiphenomenal collaboration software.
In other words, executing new technologies based on the same old practices is bound to fail, since without delivering a fundamentally better practice, a new thing becomes a distraction delivering no genuine benefit.
Peter Armstrong, Cofounder, Dashcube
Peter Armstrong is the cofounder of Dashcube. He is the author of four books, three on computer programming and one on publishing. Peter’s books have all been translated into multiple languages. Prior to Dashcube, Peter was a software developer for Silicon Valley startups for eight years, before founding a boutique consultancy in 2007 and cofounding Leanpub in 2009. Peter has been a frequent, passionate speaker at conferences, regardless of whether they’re about the future of work, of publishing, or of programming.
Len Epp, Cofounder, Dashcube
Len Epp is a cofounder of Dashcube. After writing a DPhil in English, Len worked as an investment banker in London, specializing in European utilities M&A. He later cofounded a nonprofit in the arts sector, after moving back to his home country of Canada in 2008. He led customer development at the in-progress publishing startup Leanpub for two years.