The importance of being synchronous

This posting examines the ‘real-time’ element of the onlignment definition to see why this is so important to business communications.

We have defined ‘onlignment’ as the art of real-time, online communication. There is a reason why we’ve narrowed our scope down to real-time communication and the purpose of this posting is to clarify what this is.
First of all, let’s be clear on the terminology we’re going to be using here. Real-time communication is essentially ‘synchronous’ – the parties to the communication have to be available to communicate at the same time, whatever the medium that is used. Synchronous communication can be contrasted with its asynchronous counterpart, which frees the various parties up to communicate when they want. Synchronous communication is live, like speaking on the telephone; asynchronous communication is self-paced, like writing a letter.
It’s important to understand why human beings need to communicate both synchronously and asynchronously. After all we’ve been using both approaches in parallel for a pretty long time …
Our primitive ancestors communicated synchronously using gestures, grunts, signals and ultimately speech; they soon also developed ways to communicate asynchronously, through signs, drawings, paintings and, eventually, written words.
Moving forward to the 20th century, but before the advent of home computers and mobile phones, humans had enriched their media options enormously. Synchronous options now included the telephone, TV and radio. Asynchronous alternatives included print, letters, faxes, voicemail, telex, as well as a host of ways for recording audio and video.
As we stand move forward to 2009, media options have again multiplied. Taking asynchronous options first, we’ve added email, web pages, forums, SMS messaging, podcasts and blogs. Real-time we now have audio, video and web conferencing, chat rooms and instant messaging, not to mention multi-user virtual worlds like SecondLife.
Clearly, as humans we need to be able to communicate in both modes; and to respond to this need, we seem to be evolving new media options just about equally across the two. There are pretty good arguments for going the asynchronous route:

  • We get to keep a record of our communication.
  • We are not bound by the need to communicate at any particular time.
  • We can reflect carefully on what we communicate.
  • We can read/listen/watch/interact at our own pace.
  • We can go back and re-read/listen/watch as many times as we like.

These are convincing arguments. But asynchronous communication is not the focus of this blog, so we’d better find some equivalent arguments to justify communicating in real-time, when we don’t usually have a record of what is said and done, when all participants have to be available at the same time, when communication has to be spontaneous, when the pacing is inflexible and when there is no rewind button. So what are these arguments? Why do we phone rather than text? Why do we talk to someone in person rather than send an email? Why do we hold a discussion using web conferencing rather than using a discussion forum?
Well, I’m going to throw that one open to see what suggestions you have. When we’ve gathered a reasonable collection of responses, I’ll summarise them in a future posting.
So, what are you waiting for?