Asynchronous vs synchronous communication, with some practical advice

6 minute read

As far back as we can see, people prefer to communicate important stuff in person as opposed to over a video conference call, or even in writing.

1. First there was the universe, then there were speech communities

Talking face to face has the lowest latency and the highest throughput as people use verbal (e.g. words, tone, pace, enunciation, etc. ) and physical (e.g hand gestures and facial expressions) queues to clearly communicate their ideas. Plato wrote his dialogues as invitations to readers to come to the Academy to start the dialectical process. In a sense, Plato’s famous dialogues were marketing pamphlets.

Synchronous communication implies a close correspondence between two minds. We can think of a conversation as an insemination of someone’s ideas into someone else’s train of thought. Communication is multidimensional, but if two people are actively trying to solve a problem, we can think of their communication as creating shared meaning that produces useful work towards a task, and goes beyond what one could accomplish alone. This could include working on a mathematical theory, building software, selling more products, or planning a military campaign.

In general, people make decisions and discoveries about the world when they communicate with a goal, or a problem to solve in mind. This collective meaning unites a speech community. This community can be a music band, a cohesive group of nuclear scientists, or even a finance department of a major corporation.

2. We don’t have the resources to make every communication synchronous

In an ideal situation everything would be synchronous (and face to face) to capitalize on that insemination and dialectical process. Perhaps we can even imagine a future where humanity transposes itself into some kind of a cosmic cloud of consciousness where each part is a near perfect reasoner that could interact with one another almost instantly.

Short of this idealization, we experience the following earthly limitations for synchronous, in person communication:

  1. Geography: it requires locality, which is not always possible.
  2. Not recorded and not structured: it is not discoverable by other minds if it is not recorded and structured.
  3. Noisy: it has high interference - interpersonal relations and emotional communication can interfere with the flow.
  4. Time constrained: it requires a rapid response time, and the interlocutors may need more time to formulate an answer - which is challenging to do for hard problems.
  5. Single channel: it’s difficult to work on problems that necessitate parallel tracks (and only one person can speak at a time).

Technology has specifically attempted to remedy some of these shortcomings. Perhaps the original information technology was the creation of the phonetic alphabet which replaced the first symbols of thoughts with symbols for the phonemes of natural languages. Since then, we haven’t stopped coding things. Written communication enhanced communication and made significant gains in making information discoverable by a large number of minds. Today, writing ability is becoming more important in the workplace as physical contacts become more limited, and problems require more analysis.

We built tools like github (acquired by Microsoft for $7.5B in stock in 2018) to help software engineers and product teams overcome limitations of synchronous communication. All of these coded tools are extensions of the mind that took us well past what synchronous communication alone could do. Yet, mind to mind communication, that is face to face collaborative work, can still be incomparable in quickly adjusting our own representation of problems, and coordinating decision problems. Plato’s dialectic is perhaps safe and sound.

Even when collaborative work is not possible, a single meeting with someone can have a lasting impact and enrich the subsequent asynchronous communication. Engaging our 5 senses on someone else leaves a larger footprint in our memory base to be used for future communication with that person.

3. Meetings are a synchronous communication conundrum

A large team quickly loses efficiency in communication and wastes resources. The existence of large meetings perhaps owes more to our gregarious nature than to it being a good form of communication. Suppose you lead a team of 7 people full time.

  1. Your team has a total budget of 7*40 hours, or 280 hours per week of work time.
  2. Per week, you conduct 15-30 minutes check-ins 4 times, one 2 hour sprint planning, one 1 hour sprint review, and one 30 min team retrospective.
  3. This synchronous-type communication consumes 7(4.5+2+1+.5) = 38.5 hours.
  4. Add to that that everyone might speak to everyone else on the team for 1 hour/week. That’s another 42 hours.
  5. In total that’s around 80 hours, which represents over a quarter of the work week for your team.
  6. This leaves roughly 200 hours for individual work, as a theoretical maximum.
  7. In any big corporation, you can add on top of that another 10-15 hours of meetings with other people outside of your direct team, which would eat another 100 hours of team’s time.
  8. So we are left with 100 hours for 7 people to do useful work, or just short of 15 hours of work per person per week!

To leverage a company’s communication tools, meetings should be kept to a compact base of two, or a few individuals that can then impact the rest of the stakeholders working on a project.

Meetings are taking place more and more over the internet as opposed to face to face and we are far from an idealized virtual equivalence. In the meantime, to bridge that sensory information gap, it helps to work on small gains such as investing in a good microphone, switching to a high audio bitrate service such as Facetime, and subscribing to a better internet connection.

4. Practical advice for good asynchronous communication

Plato was first to confront the synchronous vs asynchronous problem, and he would have embraced our modern tools. Today’s software industry is a good model to look into for the future of communications in other industries. Through things like the Agile framework, collaborative software, and Kanban style production, the software product development is a good model for consideration. For instance, an engineer asking a designer a question in Figma via a comment. Another example is a QA tester reporting a bug with a recorded video showing the incidence posted in a prioritized ticketing system like Azure DevOps Board, Gitlab, or Jira.

In the future, there might come a time when what we are thinking can be instantaneously communicated to the outside world with brain-machine interfaces. This field is what companies like Neuralink just started working on. But until this next revolution comes along, there are still plenty of gains to be made now in transforming the way we work and communicate.

To give direction to this new asynchronous wave within an organization, we advocate for these principles:

  1. Auditable: use tools that maintain full version history.
  2. Structured: group communicated ideas into sets and subsets of things with labels, neatly displayed.
  3. Yielding: be flexible to new ideas, encourage risk taking and foster distributed leadership.
  4. Normed: clarify team norms in communications that foster clarity, and effectiveness.
  5. Cybersecure: assume that every communication will become discoverable in the future.
  6. Hanlon’s razor: do not assume malice in others, but rather be ready to be proved ignorant and engage with positive intent.
  7. Responsible: accountability floats up, but responsibility needs to be assigned (and time-bound) to a single individual.
  8. No: be ready to say “no” when necessary: good news should travel fast, but bad news should travel faster.
  9. Openness: create open channels of communications while maintaining a sufficient level of curation.
  10. User experience centered: make high quality, readily usable intermediate end products.
  11. Synthesized: use fewer words to capture the most important meaning.

Acknowledgement: thank you David Castonguay for co-authoring this post, and Janis Kukainis and Leah Grace Capitan for comments and suggestions.