To synchronize or not to synchronize: How we collaborate over the Net

Here’s my not particularly deep commentary on this article that was pointed out to me by Alberto:

To me, its conclusion seems a bit … overzealous. Also the analogies with computer networks don’t really apply as machines are not inconvenienced by frequent demands for synchrony, and do not value the freedom of messaging when they want (which might be 3 am like I do now).

But I agree that typical asynchronous office communication is broken. Not because of e-mail as a tool but because people try to talk over that tool. Which is a bad hack that’s done just because it’s the most immediate paradigm most people have for “communication” and so it is “convenient” for them, and the technology is cheap and fast enough to allow it.

Instead, I think two other paradigms would be better for asynchronous communication:

  1. Pull-based documentation. That’s my favourite, quite obviously. Good documentation is not like talking, but its inversion. It does not look like a protocol of a conversation, but rather like a book / manual where all pieces of many conversations before have been taken and sorted in to the “right” place. All information being available like that unlocks a lot of the otherwise slow progress in asynchronous communication.

  2. Mail. If people used it like “snail mail” messages before, it would work much better. In mail, people would have to think 2-3 steps ahead in the communication and lay out their replies to these possible answers. It’s about substantial exchange of thought, at considerable length per message. So one exchange back and forth is worth at least 2-3 steps in a synchronous interaction.

I agree with the article that carefully chosen meetings are valuable for progress in collaboration – every tool for its purpose! In the Edgeryders company, we rely on asynchronous communication for nearly everything but we also know when it’s more appropriate to “call a meeting” of the directors. It only happens every few weeks, fortunately.

My favourite example for a collaboration technology that offers the best from both worlds is NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (“JPL”) where they developed something called “Xtreme Collaboration” in the 90s: there would be some weeks of asynchronous collaboration to identify and work out what blocks progress, and then one 4-6 hours meeting of 30-40 engineers where they planned and decided a complete space mission, including all the tech details that needed a common decision. They did so in a “warroom environment” that included both special collaboration software and all these people.

Comparing this brilliant example and the contemporary e-mail and messaging maze, it seems obvious that the Net does not have the right collaboration tool yet, at least not in widespread use. And beyond the conventions that I proposed above, I don’t have much of an idea how it could look like … including how to mould these conventions into a tool that “soft-enforces” them, which is needed because conventions are hard to impossible to enforce by telling coworkers what to do.

So, inspirations welcome. What’s your favourite new way to collaborate that I have never heard of?


Now there is a challenge.