What is collaboration?

Why is collaboration so difficult?

"Collaboration" means more than simply "working together." What's its role in open organizations?

Why is collaboration so difficult?
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Many contemporary definitions of "collaboration" define it simply as "working together"—and, in part, it is working together. But too often, we tend to use the term "collaboration" interchangeably with cognate terms like "cooperation" and "coordination." These terms also refer to some manner of "working together," yet there are subtle but important differences between them all.

How does collaboration differ from coordination or cooperation? What is so important about collaboration specifically? Does it have or do something that coordination and cooperation don't? The short answer is a resounding "yes!"

This unit explores collaboration, a problematic term because it has become a simple buzzword for "working together." By the time you've studied the cases and practiced the exercises contained in this section, you will understand that it's so much more than that.

Not like the others

"Coordination" can be defined as the ordering of a variety of people acting in an effective, unified manner toward an end goal or state

In traditional organizations and businesses, people contributed according to their role definitions, such as in manufacturing, where each employee was responsible for adding specific components to the widget on an assembly line until the widget was complete. In contexts like these, employees weren't expected to contribute beyond their pre-defined roles (they were probably discouraged from doing so), and they didn't necessarily have a voice in the work or in what was being created. Often, a manager oversaw the unification of effort (hence the role "project coordinator"). Coordination is meant to connote a sense of harmony and unity, as if elements are meant to go together, resulting in efficiency among the ordering of the elements.

One common assumption is that coordinated efforts are aimed at the same, single goal. So some end result is "successful" when people and parts work together seamlessly; when one of the parts breaks down and fails, then the whole goal fails. Many traditional businesses (for instance, those with command-and-control hierarchies) manage work through coordination.

Cooperation is another term whose surface meaning is "working together." Rather than the sense of compliance that is part of "coordination," it carries a sense of agreement and helpfulness on the path toward completing a shared activity or goal.

"Collaboration" also means "working together"—but that simple definition obscures the complex and often difficult process of collaborating.

People tend to use the term "cooperation" when joining two semi-related entities where one or more entity could decide not to cooperate. The people and pieces that are part of a cooperative effort make the shared activity easier to perform or the shared goal easier to reach. "Cooperation" implies a shared goal or activity we agree to pursue jointly. One example is how police and witnesses cooperate to solve crimes.

"Collaboration" also means "working together"—but that simple definition obscures the complex and often difficult process of collaborating.

Sometimes collaboration involves two or more groups that do not normally work together; they are disparate groups or not usually connected. For instance, a traitor collaborates with the enemy, or rival businesses collaborate with each other. The subtlety of collaboration is that the two groups may have oppositional initial goals but work together to create a shared goal. Collaboration can be more contentious than coordination or cooperation, but like cooperation, any one of the entities could choose not to collaborate. Despite the contention and conflict, however, there is discourse—whether in the form of multi-way discussion or one-way feedback—because without discourse, there is no way for people to express a point of dissent that is ripe for negotiation.

The success of any collaboration rests on how well the collaborators negotiate their needs to create the shared objective, and then how well they cooperate and coordinate their resources to execute a plan to reach their goals.

For example

One way to think about these things is through a real-life example—like the writing of this book.

The editor, Bryan, coordinates the authors' work through the call for proposals, setting dates and deadlines, collecting the writing, and meeting editing dates and deadlines for feedback about our work. He coordinates the authors, the writing, the communications. In this example, I'm not coordinating anything except myself (still a challenge most days!).

The success of any collaboration rests on how well the collaborators negotiate their needs to create the shared objective, and then how well they cooperate and coordinate their resources to execute a plan to reach their goals.

I cooperate with Bryan's dates and deadlines, and with the ways he has decided to coordinate the work. I propose the introduction on GitHub; I wait for approval. I comply with instructions, write some stuff, and send it to him by the deadlines. He cooperates by accepting a variety of document formats. I get his edits,incorporate them, send it back him, and so forth. If I don't cooperate (or something comes up and I can't cooperate), then maybe someone else writes this introduction instead.

Bryan and I collaborate when either one of us challenges something, including pieces of the work or process that aren't clear, things that we thought we agreed to, or things on which we have differing opinions. These intersections are ripe for negotiation and therefore indicative of collaboration. They are the opening for us to negotiate some creative work.

Once the collaboration is negotiated and settled, writing and editing the book returns to cooperation/coordination; that is why collaboration relies on the other two terms of joint work.

One of the most interesting parts of this example (and of work and shared activity in general) is the moment-by-moment pivot from any of these terms to the other. The writing of this book is not completely collaborative, coordinated, or cooperative. It's a messy mix of all three.

Why is collaboration important?

Collaboration is an important facet of contemporary organizations—specifically those oriented toward knowledge work—because it allows for productive disagreement between actors. That kind of disagreement then helps increase the level of engagement and provide meaning to the group's work.

In his book, The Age of Discontinuity: Guidelines to our Changing Society, Peter Drucker discusses the "knowledge worker" and the pivot from work based on experience (e.g. apprenticeships) to work based on knowledge and the application of knowledge. This change in work and workers, he writes:

...will make the management of knowledge workers increasingly crucial to the performance and achievement of the knowledge society. We will have to learn to manage the knowledge worker both for productivity and for satisfaction, both for achievement and for status. We will have to learn to give the knowledge worker a job big enough to challenge him, and to permit performance as a "professional."

In other words, knowledge workers aren't satisfied with being subordinate—told what to do by managers as, if there is one right way to do a task. And, unlike past workers, they expect more from their work lives, including some level of emotional fulfillment or meaning-making from their work. The knowledge worker, according to Drucker, is educated toward continual learning, "paid for applying his knowledge, exercising his judgment, and taking responsible leadership." So it then follows that knowledge workers expect from work the chance to apply and share their knowledge, develop themselves professionally, and continuously augment their knowledge.

Interesting to note is the fact that Peter Drucker wrote about those concepts in 1969, nearly 50 years ago—virtually predicting the societal and organizational changes that would reveal themselves, in part, through the development of knowledge sharing tools such as forums, bulletin boards, online communities, and cloud knowledge sharing like DropBox and GoogleDrive as well as the creation of social media tools such as MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and countless others. All of these have some basis in the idea that knowledge is something to liberate and share.

In this light, one might view the open organization as one successful manifestation of a system of management for knowledge workers. In other words, open organizations are a way to manage knowledge workers by meeting the needs of the organization and knowledge workers (whether employees, customers, or the public) simultaneously. The foundational values this book explores are the scaffolding for the management of knowledge, and they apply to ways we can:

  • make sure there's a lot of varied knowledge around (inclusivity)
  • help people come together and participate (community)
  • circulate information, knowledge, and decision making (transparency)
  • innovate and not become entrenched in old ways of thinking and being (adaptability)
  • develop a shared goal and work together to use knowledge (collaboration)

Collaboration is an important process because of the participatory effect it has on knowledge work and how it aids negotiations between people and groups. As we've discovered, collaboration is more than working together with some degree of compliance; in fact, it describes a type of working together that overcomes compliance because people can disagree, question, and express their needs in a negotiation and in collaboration. And, collaboration is more than "working toward a shared goal"; collaboration is a process which defines the shared goals via negotiation and, when successful, leads to cooperation and coordination to focus activity on the negotiated outcome.

Collaboration is an important process because of the participatory effect it has on knowledge work and how it aids negotiations between people and groups.

Collaboration works best when the other four open organization values are present. For instance, when people are transparent, there is no guessing about what is needed, why, by whom, or when. Also, because collaboration involves negotiation, it also needs diversity (a product of inclusivity); after all, if we aren't negotiating among differing views, needs, or goals, then what are we negotiating? During a negotiation, the parties are often asked to give something up so that all may gain, so we have to be adaptable and flexible to the different outcomes that negotiation can provide. Lastly, collaboration is often an ongoing process rather than one which is quickly done and over, so it's best to enter collaboration as if you are part of the same community, desiring everyone to benefit from the negotiation. In this way, acts of authentic and purposeful collaboration directly necessitate the emergence of the other four values—transparency, inclusivity, adaptability, and community—as they assemble part of the organization's collective purpose spontaneously.

Collaboration in open organizations

Traditional organizations advance an agreed-upon set of goals that people are welcome to support or not. In these organizations, there is some amount of discourse and negotiation, but often a higher-ranking or more powerful member of the organization intervenes to make a decision, which the membership must accept (and sometimes ignores). In open organizations, however, the focus is for members to perform their activity and to work out their differences; only if necessary would someone get involved (and even then would try to do it in the most minimal way that support the shared values of community, transparency, adaptability, collaboration and inclusivity.) This make the collaborative processes in open organizations "messier" (or "chaotic" to use Jim Whitehurst's term) but more participatory and, hopefully, innovative.

This article is part of the Open Organization Workbook project.

About the author

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Heidi Hess von Ludewig - Heidi Hess von Ludewig researches networked workplace creativity from the systems perspective, which means that she examines the relationships of multiple elements within the workplace that influence how individuals and groups perform innovative and creative work. She spent over fifteen years in the software industry performing a variety of roles, from developer to analyst, for Fortune 500 companies before receiving her PhD from North Carolina State University in 2014. Her research informs the... more about Heidi Hess von Ludewig