The Future Of Collaboration Is Asynchronous

The following post originally appeared in Human Infrastructure Magazine, a Packet Pushers newsletter on life in IT. You can get a free subscription to Human Infrastructure by signing up here.

Collaboration is a tough topic but I’m certain that future of collaboration isn’t video, voice, or any other person-to-person technology that requires synchronized participation, because the cost of full participation isn’t worth the return.

IP Telephony Is Dead

When a technology market stops growing, it’s dead. In stagnant market segments, vendors will only invest just enough to maintain the technology, or to reduce the cost of production or maintenance. That’s why SIP standards have slowed drastically; because vendor spending on standards development and participation is removed.

Smartphones replaced desk phones and will never be integrated with centralized switches because the market for PBX features is limited to a negligible number of people employed by corporations. And by ‘negligible’ I mean in comparison to the number of people who own mobile phones:

Source: Meeker KPCB 2015

The long-term future of PBX systems are SaaS using Internet bandwidth. We put up with the hassle of QoS & Voice SLA because the cost of private WAN bandwidth is vastly overpriced.

Voice Quality: There is false perception that voice quality is a critical issue. If voice quality really mattered to consumers, no one would ever use a mobile phone. This article is about improving voice using VoLTE and HD Voice (IEEE Why Mobile Voice Quality Still Stinks — and How to Fix It), but a year later, no one is using VoLTE because not enough people care about voice quality.

Privacy & Security: If this really mattered, all employees would be banned from owning a mobile device as part of their employment contract. We could wish for better but the reality is that productivity outweighs the risk.

One On One Communication

It seems to me that “older” workers (say 40–65) get excited about video conferencing. Maybe it’s because they grew up watching TV as children or because they are locked into conventional methods of one-on-one communication. They believe there’s value in face-to-face, person-to-person discussions. Or they see meetings as the only way to get things done.

But this doesn’t scale. Phone calls, reviews, and meetings are disruptive to productive work and prevent project completion.

Meetings lock every person into a fixed point in time to stop real work and spend time communicating. But most people aren’t communicating, sharing or delivering — they are listening to shared information. For most use cases, a meeting is the least productive way to share information, disseminate knowledge, and gather feedback.

The research suggests that a single person can only manage a maximum of ten direct reports, preferably six, where “direct” means regular face-to-face meetings. The problem is that IT teams are much larger than this and, in spite of reductions in head count, the manager/engineer ratio is decreasing.

Don’t forget a manager often believes in wasting face time with vendors, resellers, and external partners. And finally, a manager needs to communicate upwards and sideways in the management food chain too.

It’s not productive to do face-to-face communication compared to other options.

Email Almost Works

What is it that makes email such a compelling tool for communications? It enables asynchronous communications between teams, not people.

Factors of Value:

  1. One-to-many communication
  2. Silent participation/consumption of content
  3. Sharing multiple content types
  4. Allows discussion about a topic (email subject)
  5. Allows team members to read & respond according to their work schedule

The key is that email allows most people to respond when they can. A meeting requires most of your attention even when delivering no value. Email can be attended to when time permits or according to your personal work style. It almost works.

You cannot deny that email is a powerful tool. An email inbox:

  • Contains group text messages for many people or “teams”
  • Can contain content such as documents, presentations, images or video.
  • Your email client can track ‘conversations’ (based on the email subject)
  • You can delete and archive

But there are things that email does poorly:

  • Real-time chat — one on one, one to many. Email is too slow for normal back and forth
  • Opt out — you don’t want to be deluged by irrelevant or off-topic information
  • Searchable — you can only search what is available in your email box or on the server
  • Canonical — there is not single master version of the email history
  • Slow — email clients are bulky and slow

Chat Communications

Many engineers and programmers have been using IRC for efficient and effective communication. IRC is quite good, and it worked when everything was text. But today we need more complex chat tools.

Slack is the one that I use today. It supports images and videos, and there are integration bots that directly import data from other services. This screen grab shows the Packet Pushers RSS feed showing up directly in a chat room.

Slack becomes more than simply a “chat room” when you start integrating external services. For example, I can type “/gotomeeting” and instantly start a free conference call with voice, video, and screen sharing. Participants can click a link to join, or I can send to anyone.

There are hundreds of these types of integration for Slack.Check out the directory for more.

The point is that asynchronous chat tools can be more than basic text typed in by a human. And while it’s possible to integrate IRC in the same way, it doesn’t have the ease of use and availability of Slack. Yes, I have looked at Hipchat, Cisco’s Spark, and many others, but Slack really stands out as a business tool for big companies.

It Really Works

And we run our business on it. Sure, I still use email, Skype, mobile phones, and GoToMeeting for screen sharing, but mostly we use messages in Slack to chat. Sometimes it will take hours for Ethan to answer a question — which is fine because I am in different time zone.

Think About Communication Tools

I would like to see more people pay serious attention to how they communicate and how technology could improve communication. I firmly believe that video and voice don’t scale. It costs a lot in people-time to hold meetings and conference calls. They should be avoided wherever possible.

Heard this joke? “Need management approval to spend $500 on cables. Call a meeting with 20 people that cost $100/hour and no one cares.”

You never know, your work life just might be more interesting if you could get some things done.


Originally published at packetpushers.net on January 5, 2016.

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