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What exactly is collaboration anyway?

April 19, 2010

[Repost from my previous blog, which is no longer online. Some updates added.]

While the modern “social networking” meme (as opposed to the classic “social network” and “online communities” memes) appears to have been caught in a hype cycle, the “collaboration” meme seems to have gone through ebbs, flows, and pendulum swings. Recently, I’ve noticed a sharp increase in both the blogosphere and Twitterverse of mentions and inferences to collaboration centric concepts and connotations as if being the anti-hype against social networking. Personally, I don’t believe that it’s an either/or proposition. To be clear, I’ve asserted that networking (be it for social or professional purposes) and collaboration along with community are core aspects of the modern business life cycle and must be integral parts of a holistic Enterprise 2.0 strategy.

But what exactly is collaboration?

Well, Wikipedia defines collaboration as:

a recursive process where two or more people or organizations work together [“at” or “with” must be the missing word here] intersection of common goals.

[I guess even the epitome of collaborative applications that is Wikipedia still cannot prevent typos or omissions from occurring. :-)]

Although I’d certainly agree with the above definition, I also like the following description of collaboration as referenced in the “Collaboration thread in CACM for April 2008” blog entry by Jack Vinson:

Collaboration generally means working together synergistically. If your work requires support and agreement of others before you can take action, you are collaborating.

Jack’s blog entry also referenced the “Collaboration and Community” paper, which had been published by Scott London way back in 1995 and provides the most streamlined definition of collaboration:

As its Latin roots com and laborare suggest, collaboration reduced to its simplest definition means “to work together.”

While Scott’s paper had focused on collaboration in the political and civic arenas, I believe that the basic characteristics of collaborative endeavors described therein and quoted below apply just as well to any other arena that involves people working together:

  • The problems are ill-defined, or there is disagreement about how they should be defined.
  • Several stakeholders have a vested interest in the problems and are interdependent.
  • These stakeholders are not necessarily identified a priori or organized in any systematic way.
  • There may be a disparity of power and/or resources for dealing with the problems among the stakeholders.
  • Stakeholders may have different levels of expertise and different access to information about the problems.
  • The problems are often characterized by technical complexity and scientific uncertainty.
  • Differing perspectives on the problems often lead to adversarial relationships among the stakeholders.
  • Incremental or unilateral efforts to deal with the problems typically produce less than satisfactory solutions.
  • Existing processes for addressing the problems have proved insufficient.

Scott’s paper goes on to differentiate collaboration versus other models of cooperation:

Collaboration, then, involves articulating a shared purpose and direction and working toward joint decisions. This distinguishes it from other forms of cooperation which may involve common interests but are not based on a collectively articulated goal or vision. Ann Austin and Roger Baldwin note that while there are obvious similarities between cooperation and collaboration, the former involves preestablished interests while the latter involves collectively defined goals.

Upon reading that, I was compelled to post the following tweet:

Social/Networking: shared narcissism | Community: shared interest | Collaboration/Teamwork: shared objective

Then of special importance are the principles of collaboration as suggested and referenced in Scott’s paper:

What are the preconditions for effective collaboration? Most observers agree that it must be democratic and inclusive; that is, it must be free of hierarchies of any kind and it must include all parties who have a stake in the problem. As Cornelia Butler Flora et al. point out, “without community empowerment and broad participation in agenda setting, the … decision-making process of discussion, debate, and compromise is relatively meaningless.”

Barbara Gray observes that collaboration can only be meaningful if the stakeholders are interdependent. “Collaboration establishes a give and take among the stakeholders that is designed to produce solutions that none of them working independently could achieve.” In this way, they all depend on each other to produce mutually beneficial solutions.

The remainder of Scott’s paper discusses the dynamics and limitations of collaboration, collaborative leadership, and collaborative communities, all of which are well worth reading. Scott also published a companion paper titled “Collaboration in Action” that provides a survey of over a dozen best practice examples of collaborative efforts in the government and civic arenas, which every enthusiast or perpetuator of the current “Government 2.0” meme would find enlightening, and those examples would apply equally well to other arenas such as “Enterprise 2.0” in particular.

[Update: A multi-company worldwide Collaboration Consortium recently published a report, “Making Collaboration a Reality,” that is quite relevant and well worth reading. Here are some of my favorite findings:

  • First, facilitating and sustaining participation in a community requires constant effort to keep content current and relevant and to keep participants engaged. Don’t expect that participants in a community will always be active and that the community will become self- sustaining.
  • Second lesson learned: Collaboration behaviors need to evolve to include informal com- munications with unknown or unfamiliar participants in the community. Although public blogs and tweets are becoming more commonplace, people are still relatively uncomfortable with posting their thoughts or ideas to an open community.
  • Video helps establish context for a meeting participant, but is often not utilized. But this was not the case during the Consortium’s TelePresence meetings, during which no one ever raised a concern about being seen on camera—it truly was a face-to-face experience. The video was accepted as normal and natural, even when rooms would mute themselves, knowing they could still be seen even though they were not being heard.
  • Experience suggests that even those organizations that have embraced collaboration do not capture its full value overnight. Instead, they progress through three stages, in which the organizations derive increasing business value from collaboration. These three stages are part of the Collaboration Evolution Curve:

There is a lot more in the report that I will comment on in future blog entries.]

So, there you have it – exactly what collaboration is and a whole lot more. Do you agree or disagree? What do you think collaboration really is?

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 19, 2010 12:37 PM

    Lawrence – Nice post. Provokes further discussion. I like your tweet: “Social/Networking: shared narcissism | Community: shared interest | Collaboration/Teamwork: shared objective.” While I understand its significance, I’m not convinced “narcissism” is best descriptive term. How about “tactics”? Dan

    • April 19, 2010 12:45 PM

      Hey Dan, thanks for stopping by. 🙂 My point is that networking (be it MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn) has grown rapidly and will continue to be sustained by people’s innate narcissism. Some people might be in denial about it, but I believe that we all have it. Hence, it would be a huge mistake to think about networking, community, and teamwork as same things, which is what I see some vendors pushing and some customers embracing.

      Anyway, by “tactics,” what exactly do you mean?

  2. Mark Eggleston permalink
    April 19, 2010 2:40 PM

    Two critical points that I think furthers the understanding of Collaboration. First, collaboration is not new and its not (necessarily) about the new raft of tools. These just have to potential to make it better. So when we think/talk/write about collaboration, we must all be sure to consider the broader picture which includes things like email, the telephone, the mail room (remember old fashioned memos) and the water cooler. Second, John Chambers stresses that collaboration is in contrast to Command and Control leadership style. At first I thought that he was essentially setting up an alternate definition for Collaboration. But the more I think about it, the more I believe he’s spot on and that we should consider Command and Control – where give and take conversations are not welcomed – to be an excellent antonym for Collaboration.

    • April 19, 2010 3:11 PM

      Oh there’s definitely some level of Command and Control in even the most collaborative of activities. Otherwise, nothing will get done. 🙂 The key, of course, is that this type of Command and Control is not fixed based on job level, title, or seniority. Who commands (when and how) and what controls need to be in place will be excellent topics for future blog entries!

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