Ever started typing away in a chat window assuming someone is online and realized you're typing into the void? Skype is a poster child for this syndrome. you're working away and a pop up window tells you Fred has just logged into Skype, and you were just about to try and get in touch with him.
'Hey - r u there? ' you type, and wait ...nothing. Turns out Fred isn't online at all despite Skype's claims otherwise- or maybe he is but Skype is minimized on his desktop or he wandered away from his computer or phone. Plenty of small businesses - and business units of larger organizations - rely on these types of tools as their principle way of connecting and collaborating.
Culturally we tend to coalesce by habit around the watering holes where we expect to find people and information, but these ad hoc meeting places can rely on chance - and when you need someone urgently can be frustrating.
In mediaeval Britain the market cross in towns was the principle messaging center - if you wanted to find out what was going on that would be where you headed. Things have got a lot more complicated since then.
The current generation of options for information gathering and collaboration are increasingly fragmented: modern digital devices, whether desktop, laptop or mobile, are capable of hosting a formidable array of applications - and of course many of these are now hosted online and through cellular service.
Twitter is a good example of a modern communication medium where you need to keep an eye on your filters dashboard if you are to see your connections attempting to engage with you or vise versa...no guarantee they'll see your comments or questions.
Serendipity is when someone finds something that they weren't expecting to find, which can be a highly illuminating experience online but not much use if you urgently need to get the last quarter's numbers off a colleague. The are of course occasions when you bump into just the right person when going to the water cooler or rest room but that's not a particularly dependable strategy for consistent communication.
To be fair the deep rooted conventions around telephone calls and left messages don't necessarily guarantee a response, and nor does sending an email, but at least there are opportunities to communicate your absence ('I'm in a cabin in Canada and offline until the end of the month').
Presence information is baked into unified communications product suites but relies on users updating their status and doesn't cross pollinate to other services. A single sign on of presence would be useful across enterprise apps but would be very difficult to create.
Paradoxically 'real time' communication tools can be very useful for information curation and intelligence gathering purposes, as the English police are now demonstrating by 'sifting through an "overwhelming" amount of "chitter chatter" on social networks during last week's riots in London' - and no doubt showing up on the doorsteps of late night violent shoppers in the coming weeks. This characteristic of the modern web - the ability to search and find information after the fact - is a valuable tool for researchers and analysts ....but less useful if it's five to twelve and you're looking for someone or something current before your high stress meeting in five minutes.
The solution is orchestration of collaboration consistencies across the broader organization and its outliers, which can be challenging when different parts of the enterprise have different ways of working together but is doable if everyone sees there is something in it for them - such as actually being able to contact people and find things.
Especially for larger organizations the challenges of not embarking on this type of consistency drive can mean ever greater fragmentation and the sort of 'who's on first?' misunderstandings made famous by 40's vaudeville comedians Abbott and Costello seen above - assuming people can actually find each other online to participate...