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Collaboration, literally, consists of working together with one or more other people.
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.
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".
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 perceived 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"; the avoidance of previously performed research or knowledge that was not originally developed within the group/institution.
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.
Commercial /Scientific Collaboration
Even if the term collaboration has a lot of negative meaning and especially in France is not very usual (see Crozier, M. The Bureaucratic Phenomenon, Chicago 1964) there is a neutral to positive root for the term. There are various variants of multi client and/or multi contractor work. Open collaboration with market near products needs tight non disclosure agreements excluding background or previously known information from the protected intellectual property rights.(see also an example Collaborative Research and Development Agreement).
- The first step for collaboration is that the partners get known to each other- this might be facilitated by research directories like Network for European medium and large transport research facilities.
- The second step is the compatibility of the aims of the organisations at least in the segment the project is located.
- The personal preconditions comprise the ability to communicate (also with regards to the technical terms) and the willingness to share ideas and develop them further together in a possibly previously unknown direction.
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
One way to think of differentiating definitions
- Coordination: The organization of efforts of different parties to reach a common goal. High-stakes issues are not often involved, and parties need not carry a relationship beyond the accomplishment of the task at hand. The goal is static.
- Cooperation: A means to an end that involves gains and losses on the part of each participant. This can sometimes foster a competitive environment, and parties need not carry a relationship beyond the accomplishment of the task at hand. The goal is static.
- Collaboration: All parties work together and build consensus to reach a decision or create a product, the result of which benefits all parties. Competition is a nearly-insurmountable roadblock to collaboration, and the relationship among parties must continue beyond the accomplishment of the task in order to assure its viability. The goal is dynamic.
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.
- Collaboration science
- Collaborative governance
- Collaborative innovation network
- Collaborative method
- Collaborative leadership
- Collaborative software
- General theory of collaboration
- Group decision making
- "collaborate." Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002. http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com (13 Aug. 2005).
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