Synchronous or Asynchronous? This is the Theme!


Communicate, Organize, Collaborate

Not to exaggerate… but Codicons Ltd. was in a difficult situation. Engineer Stephenson was at his wit’s end. For fifteen years he had been dealing with the communication sector and, between ups and downs, he had always managed, as he said, to “let information go through”; but now the ground was falling under his feet, as if things and people had gone mad.

According to Stephenson, it all started with the arrival of Facebook. A company page had been created to maintain constant contact with customers. Since Codicons Ltd. offered consultancy in a dozen countries, the need to open localized versions of the company page soon arose, each entrusted to the local office of competence, or to external consultants.

Of course, someone needed to moderate the pages, to avoid unpleasant or even hateful comments. On the other hand, the local offices independently decided to organize the work with WhatsApp groups, to avoid having to send a thousand emails and make a hundred calls just to approve the publication of a post.

Often the shared documents, for example the images with which to illustrate the posts, were kept on the collaborators’ accounts: iCloud, or Google Drive, or even Dropbox, and why not OneDrive. Of course, since frequently it was necessary to work together on the same document, it was common sense the use of Google Docs: the changes were evident to everyone, you could also make comments, and there was no risk of missing something as often happened with email attachments.

Not that the attachments had disappeared, on the contrary: simply another layer of so-called instant communication had been added. At this point someone thought it was appropriate to propose a container to organize all that communication: Slack seems the promiseland. It was possible to organize team communication through specific channels, accessible to the whole team or only to some members. In this way unnecessary noise should have been eliminated.

Then there were private individual chats or chats with two or more members. Notifications from all other tools, calendars or messages, file shares or email attachments, were happily grounded in Slack. Wonderful!

Meanwhile, Stephenson was in a cold sweat. According to him, chaos reigned supreme.

Productivity had drastically decreased and, at the same time, the amount of time needed to carry out the most banal communication had risen impressively, due to the high number of steps and the impossibility of keeping everything under control. In his opinion, each new simplification procedure proved to be a further burden without any impact in terms of effectiveness.

“Look here, Mrs. Linares,” Stephenson fidgeted, showing what looked like flowcharts to the CEO.

“Let’s take the case of a simple post on one of our company pages, about the next Festival. To approve it, it takes an average of six main steps, not to mention further fragmentation.

Six: in addition to the OK from the local organization (one), a preventive check is required on the five most used cloud storage systems, to verify that the asset, image or text or anything else, has been approved by the communication group (two); then we need a broadcast communication on the appropriate channels inside Slack (three), which in turn convey information in real time to and from half a dozen platforms; but since not everyone has enabled reactive notifications, it is advisable to proceed with a couple of tweets and telegrams (four), in case someone was not listening on the other channels; an official email is sent for the archive (five); and a phone call to the operations manager who certifies everything (six), without having any control over it!”

“Okay, okay, spare me the details. Does it work, at least?” Linares tried to cut short.

“Damn it, it doesn’t work! In all this, the other day we noticed that the calendar was busted because some used it with visualization starting from Sunday, others with the week that began with Monday, and on different time zones, so the programming of the posts was total chaos!”

Mrs. Linares, an energetic and outspoken woman, tended to underestimate the engineer’s concerns. She found him a little catastrophic. But lately it seemed to her that there was really something strange.

How was it possible that they had gone from just mail + telephone to over twelve communication channels open simultaneously and still losing information in the process?

Understanding: the Technological Objects to Organize and Collaborate

The communication tools of that era could be divided into: Social (FB, Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin…), Messaging (SMS, WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, Riot…), Long Writing (Email, letters, registered mail), Multimedia (Audio and video: telephone, VoIP, Skype…), Analog: meetings. Every day new systems were born to integrate the existing, more or less functional but certainly never decisive.

Everyone seemed to forget a basic distinction: the one between synchronous and asynchronous.

The synchronous tools were characterized by the sharing of a so-called analog and / or digital platform which coincided with the common space-time. They also involved sharing a focus of privileged attention. Vice versa, the asynchronous instruments saw the sharing of an analog and / or digital platform that did not coincide with a common space-time; moreover, they did not have a dedicated and privileged focus of attention: everyone remained generally focused on their own facts.

This meant that, regardless of the promises of the tool, the structure of communication remained substantially unchanged according to the two categories.

Email was the typical representative of the asynchronous, and also of its derivatives (mailing lists and so on). It provided for non-immediate interactions (responses), a certain time of mediation. To remedy this perceived slowness, there was a tendency to compress time, favoring ever faster feedback cycles.

This explains the role of notifications in the asynchronous world: to draw attention, with a consequent possible increase in background noise. You have a new message! Quick, answer! These characteristics of asynchronous communication made it suitable for structuring archives, because the search functions were rather simple to implement. An email always has a sender, a recipient, a time, a subject, a text with a beginning and an end.

The meeting (vis-à-vis consultation) was instead the typical representative of the synchronous world, as well as its digital derivatives, for example, video conferences. It provided for immediate, indeed overlapping, interactions, i.e. minimum or zero mediation times. To remedy the perceived excess speed, there was a tendency to relax time, favoring slower feedback cycles: in fact, shifts to speak were decided, to avoid talking over each other.

The role of notifications in the synchronous world was therefore to draw attention, just as in the asynchronous world, but not to encourage interaction: on the contrary, it normally referred to silence, to reduce noise. Please, people, one at a time! These characteristics of synchronous communication made it unsuitable for the structuring of archives, because quickly searching for interventions in recording a phone call or a videoconference was a cumbersome if not impossible operation.

Does It Depend on How You Use It?

There are no immediate (non-mediated) communications, especially with asynchronous instruments. “Instant messaging” was therefore a practical impossibility, which actually led to an uncontrolled increase in feedback loops. The spasmodic attention devoted to the famous “Whatsapp ticks”, those blue signs that appeared when the message was first received and then read, were a clear manifestation of it.

And now the wise users will say: “Eh, but it depends on how it is used”, ready to claim an anthropological conception of technology, in which the central element of the interaction is the human.

No, not entirely. Technological objects are not neutral, they are not irrelevant supports of human action.

Non-humans, on the other hand, have invariant structural characteristics, just as humans have similar characteristics (metabolism, opposable thumb and so on). “Extreme” uses, stretches, are certainly possible, but require a greater energy expenditure.

So you can use a stone to drive a nail into a wooden board, but with a hammer it is less tiring, because the “hammer” tool has certain affordances that allow certain uses and limit others. On the other hand, you cannot use a sheet of paper to drive the same nail: it simply does not allow it, it does not have the necessary character to bring the interaction to a successful end.

Appropriate Technologies

Stephenson attended a course in appropriate technologies and returned to Codicons Ltd. with a nice framework.

The most juicy part, which he liked to show, read something like this:

ASYNCHRONOUS: it is useful for reflective communication (reflections), discussion, elaboration, research, archiving

SYNCHRONOUS: it is useful for operational communication (decisions), coordination, scheduling

It took a long time and effort, but slowly things got better at Codicons Ltd. Nobody tried to decide the dates for meetings with instant messaging or email, having understood that the messages would multiply and then not be able to cope with them.

Instead, a synchronous system was used during the previous meeting; for those who were not present, a special page was created on an internal doodle tool, on the new corporate platform: a cloud on the corporate server, managed by the internal IT department (actually two people of good will), and not by some multinational who no-one knows where it was. All free software, of course.

For the discussions, emails were mainly used again, with some precautions to self-moderate the interventions.

All the shared files, images and materials were stored on the corporate platform in a common place. Organizing them was not easy, but it was worth it.

And when a new one arrived at Codicons Ltd., and proposed a “fantastic communication tool” that would “solve every problem”, they left him to set up his business and play it alone for a while, until he got tired and asked “but how do you do it?” and then they explained it to him, calmly.