Meta Collab

Collaboration, literally, consists of working together with one or more others.

  • How does collaboration differ from cooperation? (dictionary definitions are generally more or less equivalent)
  • What qualifies as a collaboration? (is Wikipedia a collaboration in the same way that a work of art is when two artist collaborate face-to-face? and for that matter, does a family, city, nation or species qualify?)
  • What are the defining principles or elements of this process? (understanding these might help to draw conclusions on the previous questions)

Currently there exists no unifying general theory of collaboration.


Dating from 1871, collaboration is a back-formation from collaborator (1802), from the French collaborateur, ultimately from the Latin collaboratus, past participle of collaborare ("work with"), itself derived from com- ("with") and labore ("to work").


"Collaborate" implies "to work together on a project". When individuals work together as in an academic setting, "collaborate" includes the nuance "to be jointly accredited" for the work completed. When individuals and organizations work together, or organizations with other organizations, nuances include "usually but not necessarily willingly" and "with another organization with which one is not normally connected".

Collaboration as process[]

Although a collaboration may be referred to as an object, in developing theories and definitions which describe it as a phenomenon, it is important to remember that collaboration is a process. Studying a process involves greater complexity than that of an object, as its existence is momentary, conditional and contextual. In focusing on collaborassstion as a process, aspects such as the joint development of shared understandings become important features.

Four experts in collaboration, Mitch Ditkoff, Carolyn Allen, Tim Moore and Dave Pollard recently had a conversation about the collaboration process on the InnoWiki. You can no longer find this conversation at

Dave Pollard has also written a series of articles on the collaboration process that you can find here [1](scroll down to the Collaboration subheading).

Attributes of the Collaborator[]

A recent study suggests that most people (including collaboration specialists) believe that attitude is more important than experience, skill, or personality. This report can be found here [2].

Trebor Scholz from the Institute for Distributed Creativity suggests these guidelines:

  • Develop trust and mutual respect
  • Stick to initially made commitments
  • Outline clear and attainable short and long-term goals
  • Define needs/self-interest well
  • Give reasons behind your thinking
  • Combine online collaboration with face-to-face meetings to speed up the process
  • Be concise, patient, and persistent
  • Get everybody involved in the process
  • Develop a clear process including self-reflexive loops
  • Develop good listening skills
  • Pay attention to scale in collaborative groups (production groups: 4-5 participants)
  • Put a stop to domineering interruptions and put-downs
  • Communicate frequently, clearly and openly
  • Acknowledge upcoming problems
  • Use facilitators for larger groups
  • Develop a long-term view
  • Take a dose of humility
  • Learn when to let go
  • Willingness to share

Barriers to collaboration[]

One opinion is that whilst collaboration is natural in some societies, and is generally natural in pre-existing teams, collaboration is unnatural in new groups and western society. Some of the percieved barriers to collaboration are:

  • "stranger danger"; which can be expressed as a reluctance to share with others unknown to you
  • "needle in a haystack"; people believe that others may have already solved your problem but how do you find them
  • "hoarding"; where people do not want to share knowledge because they see hoarding as a source of power
  • "not invented here"; where the solution is not a product of the group, it comes from outside instead

Whilst much of the discussion around the topic of collaboration refers to the use of IT, perhaps more research is required on how to provide an effective social process that will help overcome the barriers.

From an individual behavioral perspective barriers that inhibit collaboration include

Collaboration as behavior[]

Collaboration is also a behavior and as such is driven by individual needs and emotions among individuals working together.

Barriers to Collaborative Behavior[]

  • High control needs; associated behaviors would include advocacy, utimatums, coercion, domination.
  • Principle emotional drivers:  fear and anxiety.

Enablers of Collaborative Behavior[]

  • High self-esteem.
  • Skills: Ability to observe without internal inference of personally ascribed meaning to what is observed.
  • Principle emotional drivers: love and compassion.

Group Behavior[]

  • Trust: belief in the reliability of truth.
  • Skills: Curiosity:  behaviors would include inquiry, transparency in communications, sharing, accepting feedback
  • Principle emotional drivers: love and compassion.

Differentiating coordination, cooperation, collaboration & teamwork[]

The differences between these terms can be illustrated by considering these criteria:


  • Coordination: Project to implement off-the-shelf IT application; Traffic flow regulation
  • Cooperation: Marriage; Operating a local community-owned utility or grain elevator; Coping with an epidemic or catastrophe
  • Collaboration: Brainstorming to discover a dramatically better way to do something; Jazz or theatrical improvisation; Co-creation

Preconditions for success ("must-haves")[]

  • Coordination: Shared objectives; Need for more than one person to be involved; Understanding of who needs to do what by when
  • Cooperation: Shared objectives; Need for more than one person to be involved; Mutual trust and respect; Acknowledgment of mutual benefit of working together
  • Collaboration: Shared objectives; Sense of urgency and commitment; Dynamic process; Sense of belonging; Open communication; Mutual trust and respect; Complementary, diverse skills and knowledge; Intellectual agility
  • Communication: The process of constructing verbal and nonverbal messages in an attempt to engage in effective and approprirate interaction with others. Communication is the dynamic process which enables the creation of shared objectives, building mutual trust, and fostering a shared sense of commitment.

Enablers (additional "nice to haves")[]

  • Coordination: Appropriate tools (see below); Problem resolution mechanism
  • Cooperation: Frequent consultation and knowledge-sharing between participants; Clear role definitions; Appropriate tools (see below)
  • Collaboration: Right mix of people; Collaboration skills and practice collaborating; Good facilitator(s); Collaborative 'Four Practices' mindset and other appropriate tools (see below)

It is debatetable if sanctions are necessary to secure productive collaboration and motivate free-riders to give inputs. "behavioral economics", see Fehr,Rockenbach; Detrimental Effect of sanctions on human altruism (download). The findings of the research employing game theory are that voluntary compliance is most important. Sanctions should not be outspoken and applied frequently but fair sanctions should be in place in order to support altruism with the players. Gächter and Thöni conclude in their paper Social learning and voluntary cooperation among like-minded people, Dec. 2004 (download) that provenience i.e. similar set of values is an enabler of collaboration.

Purpose of using this approach[]

  • Coordination: Avoid gaps & overlap in individuals' assigned work
  • Cooperation: Obtain mutual benefit by sharing or partitioning work
  • Collaboration: Achieve collective results that the participants would be incapable of accomplishing working alone

Desired outcome[]

  • Coordination: Efficiently-achieved results meeting objectives
  • Cooperation: Same as for Coordination, plus savings in time and cost
  • Collaboration: Same as for Cooperation, plus innovative, extraordinary, breakthrough results, and collective 'we did that!' accomplishment

Optimal application[]

  • Coordination: Harmonizing tasks, roles and schedules in simple environments and systems
  • Cooperation: Solving problems in complicated environments and systems
  • Collaboration: Enabling the emergence of shared understandings and realization of shared visions in complex environments and systems

Appropriate tools[]

  • Coordination: Project management tools with schedules, roles, critical path (CPM), PERT and GANTT charts; "who will do what by when" action lists
  • Cooperation: Systems thinking; Analytical tools (root cause analysis etc.)
  • Collaboration: Appreciative inquiry; Open Space meeting protocols; Four Practices; Conversations; Stories

Degree of interdependence in designing the effort's work-products[]

(and need for physical co-location of participants)

  • Coordination: Minimal
  • Cooperation: Considerable
  • Collaboration: Substantial

Degree of individual latitude in carrying out the agreed-upon design[]

  • Coordination: Minimal
  • Cooperation: Considerable
  • Collaboration: Substantial

Where do teams, partnerships, think-tanks, open-source and joint ventures fit in this schema? The general definition of a team is an interdependent group, which suggests that collaborative groups are teams, coordinated groups are not, and cooperative groups may or may not be. Partnerships and joint ventures are both primarily cooperative undertakings, whose objectives evolve over time. Open-source developments can run the gamut among all three types of undertaking. Theoretically, so can think-tanks, though in reality much think-tank work is solitary and not really collaborative. Even the work of scientists on major international projects is substantially individual, with a lot more coordination and cooperation than true collaboration.

Musical Collaboration[]

Musical collaboration occurs when one or more musicians in different places or groups work on the same album or song. Collaboration between musicians, especially with regards to jazz, is often heralded as the epitome of complex collaborative practice. Special software has been written to facilitate musical collaboration over the internet, such as VSTunnel.

See also[]

External Links[]

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