Synchronicity: The true secret of the Internet

In his column this week, Tim Landgrave discusses the principle of synchronicity: the need for people to be in the same place at the same time in order to communicate. The Web dramatically diminishes this requirement, along with its cost.

As more people continue to hop on the Internet bandwagon and the technology continues to advance at breakneck speed, it gets increasingly difficult to give simple analogies to help people understand the benefits of this revolution.

Unfortunately, the people who need to understand it most are often the people who understand it the least. This includes owners of small to medium-size businesses who have to shepherd their organizations into the electronic age, as well as presidents, CEOs, and board members of large companies who are being hammered by their click-and-mortar counterparts.

One of the fundamental benefits of the Internet and the applications it has spawned is the ability to mitigate the high cost of synchronicity—that is, the cost of communications between two or more people having to meet in the same place at the same time. You can also look at the effects of synchronicity as the inverse relationship between the number of people involved in a conversation and the total cost of the conversation. Let’s look at different conversation types and see how their cost decreases as the synchronicity decreases.

A brief history of communications
To most of us, the most common means of communication is still the most expensive—the telephone. Think about the coordination and sacrifice involved in getting two people on the phone at the same time ready to discuss the same subject.

Cellular phones certainly make the process easier, but the fundamental problem with phones still remains. Both parties must agree to meet at a specific (synchronized) time in order for the communication to take place.

Voice mail allows conversations to take place on a less synchronous basis. We can leave voice mail for each other ad infinitum and never have to actually talk in person. In fact, before e-mail was widely available, many companies used “phone tag” as the most convenient form of asynchronous communications.

Widespread availability of e-mail brought about the next set of revolutionary changes. By using e-mail, individuals could not only leave each other messages, but the entire record of the conversation could be kept in context. Without painstakingly transcribing prior voice mail messages, there was no way to do this before e-mail.

More importantly, e-mail could be sent to more than one person at a time, and if managed properly, each person would always have access to the latest conversation thread. But after answering the same e-mail messages repeatedly, it makes sense to post that information in a place where everyone can access it all the time.

Web technologies, more specifically Web sites, allow an even lower level of synchronicity. With a Web page, you can post information without specific intended recipients. The posting of the information doesn’t require or expect any participation from the intended recipients. In fact, many times the recipients themselves aren’t the ones the author originally intended.

Web surfers (a.k.a. recipients of the message via the Web site) come from many different sources. Some are directed there specifically and others find the information with search engines, referrals from friends, advertisements, and so on. It would be impossible for us to call or even e-mail each of the potential recipients of the messages we create and distribute via the Web.

The more synchronous communication methods simply aren’t cost-effective in reaching the number of people possible using a Web site. As communication progresses through the phases of one to one (voice), one to many (e-mail), and many to many (Web), the overall cost of delivering the message per recipient drops at each phase.

Where do the next synchronicity breakthroughs come from?
Although the buzzwords have been around for a while, neither portals nor digital dashboards are in much widespread use outside of corporations. One reason for this is that the objects or Web parts that are exposed within individual companies aren’t easily accessible to customers or trading partners outside the company.

As the world moves toward common object models based on XML-calling syntax that pass between companies, you’ll begin to see the ability to deliver tailored content to individuals across the Internet automatically instead of requiring the search and bookmark methods people use today.

Another technology advance that promises to help people filter the amount of valuable information they can process while increasing the effectiveness of information providers (including companies creating their own internal support databases) is the concept of intelligent auto-responders. Basically, these systems are able to process incoming e-mail messages to support desks and provide suggested solutions without having to involve live agents directly.

One of our customers uses just such a system from a company called Talisma. They’ve been able to reduce the e-mail messages handled by support personnel by more than 50 percent in less than six months. Systems like these will continue to improve to the point that most inquiries can be handled asynchronously, with responses generated from the most up-to-date support information available to a company.

Ironically, the next major advance in communications is likely to bring synchronicity full circle. New Web technologies allow Web surfers to talk to the “next available live agent.” But now the most expensive form of communications—the (probably IP-based) phone call—may actually become the selling tool that makes transacting on the Web an enjoyable (and for many companies, profitable) experience.
What do you think of Tim Landgrave’s argument? Send us an e-mail or start a discussion.

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