Layers of Time: Collaboration Tempo


I just was introduced to a helpful way of thinking about the different speeds of collaboration, a concept advanced by Erin ‘Folletto’ Casali. The source was a recent post by LJ Parker, of Post*Shift, who starts by wondering  — in the context of the recent implosion of Twitter and the emergence of Meta’s Threads — ‘when did social tech get so… antisocial?’

Cal Newport has long been pointing out the issues with social tech in the organisation being used as "a dystopian micro-twitterverse" inside orgs. There is too much noise - too many notifications that become meaningless, too many meetings that should have been.. (more noise..?), and almost no common agreement of which tool to use for what purpose. With a lack of shared norms on this, a little bit of everything ends up across an array of tools.

Most of our daily interactions on the digital workplace have turned into hours of firefighting surface level channel chats, DMs, video call or email interactions across disparate social tools, replacing real work. And as an added layer of distraction, return to the office mandates dictate that we need to spend time worrying about co-ordinating everyone's
Taekwondo days, lest we miss out on important face-to-face collaboration (aka lunch). Against this backdrop is it any wonder many are quick to write off hybrid work models? When did social tech get so ..anti-social?

In many of the posts I have shared here on the Sunsama blog, I’ve explored many themes that touch on these issues, both directly and tangentially. But aside from a strong advocacy of asynchronous communications paired with “bursty” communications, I haven’t integrated the concepts underlying the Pace Layers model — as laid out in three earlier posts — with tools for communication, coordination, and cooperation (commonly referred to as ‘collaboration’, collectively). In this post, I will do that, starting with Casali’s Three Speeds of Collaboration model.

Three Speeds Model

Casali starts with an exposition of tools and then tries to categorize them based on what the tools are trying to do. And she then explores what people are trying to accomplish when they adopt work technology. But I will start with the central part of her thesis: the three speeds of ‘collaboration’, and leave the tools until later:

The model is based on the idea that collaboration has three speeds upon which it’s based and that these speeds must all exist and can’t be conflated into one to be effective.

The top-most, fastest layer is real-time:

You often find that a team has a need to discuss certain things quickly, in short but intense exchanges. This can be just a question that requires a simple answer, or complex arguments to clarify something specific. This usually happens in chat [tools].

Casali characterizes this layer of communication as real-time, synchronous, interactive, and ephemeral, and the observation ‘you must be there’ for the communication to work:

Fast: the [tool] interface reacts instantly, within milliseconds.
Synchronous: everyone must be present at the same time.
Interactive: replies are delivered in a short time, ideally in under a minute, usually less.
Ephemeral: what’s said is valuable for the people involved, but don’t persist beyond that.

As with the other layers, the user experience of the tools must conform to the tempo of the communication.

The next layer of her model is ‘slower than real-time’, which she calls async:

Not everything however requires this kind of quick turnaround [as in real-time communications]. Certain discussions can happen in a longer timeframe, or can be delayed, or aren’t as important. Maybe the person isn’t even there at this time. This is the realm usually covered by email.

She characterizes async in this way:

Slower: the interface can take a few seconds to get the communication across.
Asynchronous: the other person isn’t necessarily present at the same time.
Delayed: there’s no expectation of an immediate answer, even if if you know the person there’s usually a timeframe you can expect. It’s usually in the range of hours or days.
Persistent: it creates a track record that can be easily re-read.
Linear: the structure is often chronological.

Note: the different ends of the communication can have participants who aren’t interacting at the same time, and if they are, it’s not central to the mode of communication or the tool’s affordances.

The lowest level in her model is what she calls storage, at the much lower speed of things like documents and databases:

This is the speed where you are not there anymore in the conversation after you wrote it. This is a form of broadcast communication: one person writes, many people listen, often in a long timeframe. It’s often a piece of content that is able to stand on its own, covering a specific topic or subject.

: publishing content it might even take days, with an editorial review in between.
Completely asynchronous
: the author might even not be with the team anymore.
: no answer is required. The content is self contained and communicates by itself.
Timeless: it is very persistent. Documents stored can stay for years.
Organized: there’s a multi-class structure with hierarchies, categories, tags and metadata.

She notes that slow storage may require maintenance, but is a passive sort of communication: it’s not a person, it’s an impersonal, autonomous document.

Tools and Tempo

It’s worth noting that Casali focuses almost exclusively on communication in her ‘collaboration’ model. There’s no mention of coordination tools — like work and project management, shared calendars, workflow tools, or ‘intranets’ — or tools organized to support cooperative work — like online whiteboards, marketing suites, and CRM. These could all be factored into the three-speed model, I believe, but that’s out of scope for today.

Also, Casali adopted — without explicitly saying so — a transactional view of what’s going on when we communicate. My view is more about the transitions between different paces of work, as I will develop in the discussion that follows.

Here’s a table with these three speeds, and the communication tool categories:

But I confess, this approach doesn’t really line up with the Pace Layers of Work Model.  Here’s that diagram, from Layers of Time: Pace Layers of Work:

In this model, the top-most layer is ‘me-time’, the deep work individuals undertake independently of others: where they are communicating with themselves, as opposed to communicating with others. During deep work, they are writing, journaling, designing, coding, and an endless list of other activities. That involves close interaction with various tools, some of which are private — like a personal journal — while others may be shared with others. However, while focused on the inward-focused, deepest work, people aren’t actively communicating with others: they are interrogating themselves.

The outward focus of me-work leads ultimately to connection with others, activities which take place in we-time, which can happen in many media and many tempos. I finish a long session working heads-down on a project, and then I ping a colleague via email to ask her to take a look before I share the work product with others, and I tell her it’s not immediate, just let me know in the next day or so if possible. That is the transition from real-time, me-time to async, we-time.

Another obvious scenario is a real-time meeting via video (like Zoom) which is real-time, we-time, and which leads to some decisions being made. Someone is deputized to capture those decisions in a document (performed in real-time, me-time the day after, circulated for async review within the document (while it is still fluid) by the meeting attendees (each in their own me-times), and then posted somewhere as a storage object.

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Another Way To Look At It

I’m inclined to change the names that Casali proposed. Since we spend so much time transitioning from one sort of communication tempo/tool to another, the transitions are the important part. So, think of these shifts as phase changes: gas, liquid, and solid. As we know, a gas has neither a definite volume nor shape, a liquid has a definite volume but no definite shape, and a solid has a definite volume and shape.

It’s not the tools that define the tempo, really. People’s needs demand phase changes, and tools are dragged along, shifting from gas, to liquid, to solid, from one form to another, based on the context in the pace layers of work.

Perhaps just metaphorical, but gases are a phase of matter where the atoms are the most active, and gases expand to occupy the space — and time — available. Sounds like work chat, doesn’t it?

Email — the quintessential async tool — is more like a liquid: it flows, never-ending, but — so long as reasonable conventions are in place — async communication flows in the background, behind atmospheric chat. However, email can be used in a near-real-time way, almost like chat. And since it can serve as a repository, it has a document-like quasi-solidity, too.

Some artifacts of communication are solid, such as documents that capture elements of governance and define work processes. But documents can also be gaseous, like the discussion thread from a group editing a Google Doc or a Miro whiteboard in real-time, synchronously. Or a document can be liquid, as with the group’s async review of the decisions made in a meeting, captured in Google Doc comments.

So, it’s not the tools that define the tempo, really. People’s needs demand phase changes, and tools are dragged along, shifting from gas to liquid, to solid, from one form to another, based on the context in the pace layers of work.

Casali’s model is helpful, although like all models it is incomplete: an abstraction of the world, and a pale shadow of the complexity underlying the workings of people. Her layers dissolve into dozens of permeable phase transitions instead of a fixed hierarchy of communication channels.

And it is people, most importantly, whose tempos matter: people are doing the work, while tools — no matter how opinionated — only create a context for us to communicate in, and only act as gateways to shift our connections across the phases and pace layers of work.

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