The evolution of the learning environment calls into question the traditional meanings of synchronous and asynchronous learning and requires learning leaders to reconsider their design strategies.
Synchronous (adj.): happening, existing or arising at precisely the same time.
Asynchronous (adj.): not synchronous.
I have thought a great deal about these two words. Candidly, though, it’s been a long time since I’ve truly contemplated their meanings. They’re commonplace. They’re technocentric cousins of “blended” or “self-paced.” They’re boring. And yet renewed contemplation leads me to believe that reflection on these two little words is well-deserved. Because, in reconsidering these words, I’m forced to reconsider a great deal more. The words are mile markers in the complicated evolution of organizational learning, and now is an exceptional time to look out the window.
Why these words? What do they really tell us and how and when did they enter our frame of reference?
I’m sure I’ll hear from the learning etymologists, perhaps even the brave soul who hunted these wooly mammoths of words and dragged them proudly into our learning camp, but in my experience, these words became the e-learning generation’s version of “classroom” vs. “video” or “real” vs. “Memorex.”
We latched on to these two words as a way to compartmentalize learning modalities, to demonstrate evolution into a dawning Internet age. It’s not that they’re bad words. It’s just they they’re unsatisfying in the way we’ve applied them: to deliver technologies vs. a learning process or organizational capability.
That being said, even as they’re currently applied, there really are best practices lumbering up from the foundation of these words. Words can create worlds, and in our world, the learning programs we design, buy or borrow nearly always use an explicit mix of synchronous and asynchronous elements (and, incidentally, symmetrical and asymmetrical — my personal favorites).
But when we speak to true best practices for integrating modalities, setting aside the world built from those words, only one really delivers results: understanding and articulating a specific future vision, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the current organization and using both content and process to your advantage.
I don’t just mean the process of delivery as enabling technologies for asynchronous and synchronous activities. I mean using the process in and of itself as the content because process is something on its own. Oftentimes, an organization’s behavioral tendencies are affected as much through process as they are through content. Learning is a complex and wonderful beast, and we have the opportunity to wisely use whichever tentacle is in the right place at the right time. Asynchronous and synchronous should not be thought of only as delivery approaches, but as the learning itself.
I’ll give you an example of what I mean. Last year, I became involved in developing a learning strategy at an organization undertaking an innovation initiative. I’ll call it ACME.
ACME was interested in creating a new curriculum that could be delivered in its sophisticated development model that mapped learning delivery modalities to employee levels, tendencies and geographies, and used a blend of synchronous and asynchronous components.
In theory, this approach works quite well. However, it’s short-sighted in addressing the true problem patterns associated with innovation gaps. The behavioral dynamic at ACME, as with many global organizations of 6,000 people, or 300,000 people, instead requires a new look at how to best use the tools available to its learning groups.
The company’s problem was not the lack of a formal innovation process, approach or capability — the musculature — in which most trainers’ current tools are most effective. At ACME, it was circulatory: a systemic fear of conflict, an engineering-heavy organization with a natural tendency of avoidance, gone awry at the departure of a central figure or change of vision, then reeling in an inability to innovate in light of incredibly agile competition.
And the problem was amplified, at least partially, by an inordinate strength in organizational asynchronous capability. That is, people just weren’t talking to each other. They were communicating through complex, overly trained processes, within complicated frameworks and unwritten standards of conduct.
So given this climate, what program do we create, and what’s the blend?
I wholeheartedly believe learning modality should be secondary to creating engagement and the resulting effect. Circulatory issues, such as at ACME, frequently benefit from process-driven solutions, in which the process of delivery ultimately becomes the change. So in this case, the modality, the physicality, becomes the engagement.
ACME is very good at asynchronous. So to include any asynchronous activity into the learning mix would be counterproductive at best. Instead, give them something that requires interaction. A field trip to reveal ACME 2.0 processes? Play-by-play live management meetings during company lunches? Delivering effective programs meant reconsidering the entire learning toolbox — even throwing out the box itself.
Synchronicity in the New Web World
We all have a new toolbox to consider, if not an entirely remodeled workshop. Google and others have made a new world for us, a world that is overlapping with the world of real organizational problems in sometimes wicked, and sometimes welcome, ways. This leads me to why I’ve been so wildly excited in reconsidering those two words. I’m like Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch. Synchronous and asynchronous actually can mean something new and powerful and actionable in this renovated world of learning and enablement.
Let’s consider some newer technologies, with the “Is it synchronous?” test. Really think about each one for a moment: Web site. Online class. Blog. Wiki.
It’s a frustrating exercise because I’m no longer sure what the right answers are. At the scale of today, with its swell of skilled consumers and creators, the Web has very rapidly moved from the asynchronous, self-paced column to the synchronous, group-paced one. Web 2.0 tools have made creation a simpler skill. And Web 3.0, according to some, will be at least partially driven by an ongoing shift toward the “semantic Web.”
What this means is that tools that create connections around people and data are now more plentiful. This is a good thing. Web 3.0 quickly is making knowledge consumption and connection more intuitive and specialized.
And within this scale, learning continues to democratize itself. Authoritative experts on any range of topics have multiplied like tribbles, and Google serves it up better than many learning management systems. Systemic constraints to adoption, such as unforeseeable liability and nearly unachievable pace, may stifle the transformation, but only slightly. Why? Because India, China and others aren’t concerned with the same systemic constraints, and not advancing at or beyond their pace will cost too much for the rest of the world. It’s happening whether you’re on the bus or not. Nobody can compete with the global synchronicity of ideas.
The pace of change is consistently unfolding itself in new and unpredictable ways. Ideas evolve differently when millions of people advance them at once. When knowledge has a short shelf life, knowledge operations — knowledge channels — are everything.
There are a few blogs I read on a daily basis that have other bloggers who also read them. These consumer-creators then comment on their own blogs, in a virtuous (or vicious) cycle, extending the ideas geometrically and shape-shifting them in a matter of hours.
It’s a conversation. Wikipedia, for acutely current topics, changes shape dramatically in seconds — faster than a phone call in most cases. Certainly faster than a meeting. Imagine having a meeting with 20,000 people, experimenting with an unknown idea and reaching a consensus in two hours.
It’s wildly asymmetrical, and it is experienced as asynchronous, but it is erected with all four walls at once. I, for one, find it incredibly overwhelming. It’s a different human experience, and it’s synchronous in a completely non-programmatic and uncontrollable way.
As a contrast case, let’s consider the classic synchronous experience: a classroom. Many people take a class at once. Students have conversations with instructors and among themselves: synchronicity. But isn’t it also wildly and lamentably asynchronous? Isn’t the proximity between problem and outcome more important than the proximity between student experiences?
And what about scale? Isn’t the entire concept of synchronous that it happens at once? If 500,000 people take a self-paced course over a 10-day period and converse with each other informally afterward, isn’t that closer to the true meaning of synchronous? I’ve seen wikis in engineering groups that communicate a problem, triangulate a solution and deliver that solution in minutes. This is the right learning, just in time, for a problem unknown 10 minutes earlier. There is no LMS to help build their core skill, just immediate access to 80 other people with that skill to walk them through: crowd-sourced mentoring.
Ultimately, asynchronous and synchronous are words that describe the meeting of two ends. In traditional design, the ends are experienced as learner-teacher or learner-learner. But ongoing scale and new technology continually adds new ends: learner-organization, learner-ideas, organization-strategy. In a world of nearly instantaneous access to and continual shifting of ideas, and of incredible growth in organizational ecosystems (employees and partners), learning must continue its evolution as a strategic service within the organization.
Synchronous should apply to the shelf life of needs and ideas as much as it does to the teacher-learner connection. And learning groups have a unique role to play in putting all these ends together, a need that currently is unmet.
What to Do With It All?
In this linguistic journey, in the world these words created, I have a revised set of “design” ideals to strive for:
1. Forget about the “best” blend, using any words. Find high-leverage points within a system of people and use them. Best practices, conventions and methodologies hold little weight in complex global organizations. Development is a guerilla change campaign. Success is repeatable, but not through duplication. Speed and adaptation are critical. Cast the models aside and use every tentacle. Think about the right “ends” for your organization’s hopes and problems.
2. Use media like never before. Provide new tools and services that create connections around people and data. Begin to think of synchronicity as a service you provide, not a design principle. In short, help your business build a practice of creation/knowledge agility, and support it with semantic Web technology. It’s all about getting learning to people when and where they need it. And then get out of the way.
3. Ask and respond. Take part in the new agenda. Show humility, speed and new openness to ideas. There’s an explosion of new technology entering the market to build capability in ways you probably haven’t considered. Expect to feel overpowered and out of control. It will pass once the muscle develops.
It’s a new age of blending learning, an age in which individuals interact with ideas and business problems from hundreds of sources — some approved, some unapproved — synchronously. Concepts and models are evolving not in book time, but in blog time. Five of the 10 best-selling novels in Japan in 2007 were written on cell phones.
For a learning organization to deliver in this new world, it must embrace and empower, not control. We must be the equippers, the suppliers, in the same way we have with core skills and abilities. But in shifting the focus from equipping a skills inventory to equipping skills and the process, the portfolio of synchronous and asynchronous becomes much more powerful. The blend itself becomes the initiative, in which speed, personalization and proximity are key.
Grow the new tentacle. Find the ends. Discard the recipe.
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