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

Although the word collaboration is widely used in many varying contexts such as education, science, art and business, very little research has been carried out to determine the properties of this process. With the relatively recent advent of computer mediated communication (CMC), the nature of collaboration is coming under more intensive scrutiny. As software designers, facilitators and theorists from many diverse fields strive to create more useful and effective collaborative environments and methods, more light is shown on this ubiquitous and taken for granted practice. However, what light is being cast is still fairly refracted into the diverse fields in which the research is being carried out. Perhaps more collaboration into the nature of collaboration will be required to answer such questions as:

  • 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 principals 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.

Etymology

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").

Nuances

"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.

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 find this conversation here [1].

Dave Pollard has also written a series of articles on the collaboration process that you can find here [2](scroll down to the Collaboration subheading).

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"; self explanatory

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.

Differentiating coordination, cooperation, collaboration & teamwork

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

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

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)

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 understanding and realization of shared visions in complex environments and systems

Examples

  • 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

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. So theoretically 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.

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