Huddle impressions: some features

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Also posted on: The Norfolk Punt

I’ve just had a hands-on demo of Huddle (which describes itself as an “enterprise content collaboration  platform”) with Jonathan Howell (its CTO) and James Pipe (one of its product managers, focused on mobile and desktop). As I’ve said before, there are limitations to this, as I’m not working on a real collaboration issue at my workplace, but I have used Huddle before (at the BCS) and I do think its redesigned interface is “cool” and supportive. Huddle’s promise to provide its users with “just enough” information to let them get their work done seems a reasonable, and achievable, objective.

Huddle provides cross-platform support, which is good. Somebody can make an update on their desktop and the updated content appears on peoples’ iPads and iPhones in real time. The permissions and so on needed to make this work seem reasonably flexible and sufficiently powerful – this is an important aspect of collaboration software. People must be able to collaborate on sensitive information and control who sees what – without obtrusive controls that disincentivise collaboration. Huddle seems to do a reasonable job but this is an area in which any purchaser of collaboration software needs to do its own due diligence; with his own staff, collaborating on tasks they are familiar with.

This is where Huddle’s “start small and grow success” approach is good (it isn’t unique to Huddle, but that doesn’t make it any less worthwhile). The conventional approach to implementing collaboration software, often adopted by vendors of licensed software and driven by the IT group, is to install as many licenses as you can afford (often promoted by bulk discounts) and then look for problems to solve with them. Often a lot of these licenses remain as shelfware. In contrast, Huddle’s subscription model means that there’s an incentive to only buy as much Huddle as you need and get rid of any subscriptions no-one is using. That’s a good start, although an organisation can still choose to mess up a subscription model. However, Huddle (according to Chris Boorman, CMO) is adopting an incremental marketing approach – it encourages a customer to install Huddle for a small group with a real need for collaboration and then supplies experienced mentors to help the initial group make this a success. It aims at ‘skills transfer’ to its customer and to educate ‘champions’ amongst its initial customers. It then hopes that its initial deployment will grow, with more subscriptions, as the early adopters demonstrate success. If that is what really happens in practice, it should overcome any prejudices about collaboration shelfware.

Another risk-reduction feature of Huddle is its security certifications – if you understand what these mean and don’t see them just as a check-box delivering mindless comfort. Huddle has achieved ISO 27001 certification (part of a range of ISO 27000 standards), which does not guarantee security but does provide a framework for a company to implement security around Huddle and gives all stakeholders a common, defined, vocabulary for discussing security issues. Of course, if you understand certification, you’ll now be asking about the scope of assessment and when Huddle was last assessed – there’s a starting point for this here.

Moreover, Huddle is Pan Government Accredited (PGA) at Impact Level 2 (IL2), which means “based on good commercial standards, centred around a suitably scoped ISO27001 certification”, and claims that it is used by 80 per cent of central UK government departments, including the Cabinet Office, Ministry of Justice, Defra and Department for Business Innovation and Skills. This does not mean that “the government says Huddle is totally secure” or anything like that; but it does give users confidence that it is secure enough to accommodate serious work – although you’d want to do more due diligence (especially around physical access on your premises) if you were using it for, say, personal data or anything else where security is critical.

I’m also impressed that Huddle has what it says is a usable and well-documented RESTful API (“this time around, we got our developers to write the documentation first and then produce the API, so we have confidence in the documentation”, says Howell). This should allow customers to integrate Huddle collaboration with other software-supported processes – a useful success factor and will allow a Huddle community to develop, sharing third party Huddle utilities and customisations. Huddle is more likely to succeed as part of a larger community including third parties – better a small slice of a large pie than all of a small pie, perhaps. There isn’t a formal AppStore for Huddle yet – but who knows?

I think that Huddle sees its main opportunity as failing or less-than-popular SharePoint installations – and it seems to address many of the issues that SharePoint customers report, including the shelfware issue. Nevertheless, SharePoint is a moving target and Microsoft has a history of reinventing its products without necessarily changing their name. I wonder what Microsoft collaboration around Office365 will look like in 2014? I do think the conventional licensing model, especially for collaboration software, is dying (although I’m not stupid enough to predict the actual death-date – in anything to do with IT, a better model co-exists with the old ways for ages).

Unfortunately, I think that some people who failed with SharePoint will also fail with Huddle (and other collaboration solutions) – and for similar reasons, around blame cultures, egos and politics – and will blame the software instead of their organisational/management failings. To end on an optimistic note, however, this is the sort of customer maturity issue Huddle’s “start small and grow with success” model might help with – as long as top management buys into and understands collaboration.