Collaboration: It's Not What You Think

Collaboration is just one of the many ways we can work together.

Posted Feb 22, 2016

Michel Villeneuve - Mécanisme / Mechanism /AI-139a, CC BY 2.0/Wikimedia
Source: Michel Villeneuve - Mécanisme / Mechanism /AI-139a, CC BY 2.0/Wikimedia

Collaboration is an ideal many of us strive to achieve in our relationships, work lives, and extracurriculars. We move about the world with a vague sense that working together is a good thing—something we should do. 

But what is collaboration? Many people proffer the idea that collaboration is “working together to do something.” While this is a reasonable starting point, the problem is that there are many different forms of working together. Working together is not a one-size-fits-all enterprise. Arthur Himmelman, a consultant on community and systems change collaboration, encourages us to think of the different forms of working together as arrayed along a continuum that includes networking, coordinating, cooperating, and collaborating.

Networking, for example, involves exchanging information for mutual benefit. Such information exchange is relatively easy because it requires an initial low level of trust, limited availability of time, and no sharing of turf. Two departments in your company might, for example, alert each other when one plans to conduct a professional development seminar that others would be welcomed to attend (and who wouldn’t want to attend yet another professional development seminar?!).

Coordinating likewise involves information exchange; in addition, participants in Coordinating groups alter individual activities to some degree for mutual benefit and to achieve a common purpose. This station on the continuum requires a slightly higher level of trust and some sharing of turf. Returning to the seminar example, the departments would move into coordinating if the host department intentionally scheduled the seminar at a time that doesn’t conflict with the other department’s standing meeting so that members of that other department would be able to attend.

Cooperating additionally involves information and resource sharing (e.g., human, financial, space, technology) for mutual benefit and to achieve a common purpose. More formal than Coordinating, Cooperating requires increased organizational commitment and alteration of individual activities. Cooperating also requires a substantial time commitment, a higher level of trust, and significant sharing of turf. Our two departments would be cooperating if they decided to co-host a seminar (on collaboration, perhaps?), worked together to identify the guest speaker, and each pitched in funds to cover the speaker’s fee.

And, finally, there’s collaborating, just one of the many ways we can work together.

Collaborating involves substantial organizational commitment, a very high level of trust, and extensive sharing of turf. The qualitative difference between Cooperating and Collaborating is that collaborating partners demonstrate a public enthusiasm for—and commitment to the value of—learning from each other to become better at what they do collectively. For example, imagine if the above seminar turns into a seminar series where the different departments take turns presenting content to the full group. Or, imagine that after a guest speaker presents to the two departments, inter-department teams work together to implement a strategy introduced during the seminar and then have the opportunity to report back to the departments on their successes and failures. In these instances, the departments have moved into collaborating.

Collaborators are clear that the importance of their partners’ success is as great as their own and that their own success depends on their partners’ success. Collaborating partners willingly share the risks, responsibilities, resources, and rewards of the work (learn more about the Four Rs here).

Collaboration is often heralded as a dream tool for leveraging organizational resources. I completely agree. In fact, collaboration is the tool of choice when players wish to achieve together that which cannot be of achieved alone. Yet, few of us receive training in how to do it well. Thus, it should come as little surprise that many collaborative endeavors fall short of their initial promise or implode altogether. In future posts, we’ll consider strategies for building the collaborative capacity of individuals, teams, and organizations. (Or, if you want to know more right away, check out my and Michael Nanfito’s article on the topic.)

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