Defining Collaboration: Collaboration as "Human Behavior" (Sense 1)


What is “collaboration”? It’s a frequently asked question. In my masterclasses, I start with the short hand, to “co-labour” on one slide, and then expand it to “Collaboration means people working with other people towards a common outcome.” Note that there is no mention of technology in the definition.

But, the problem with my definition above is that it’s extremely broad. It covers just about anything we do at work with other people!

The current Wikipedia definition for collaboration (which is frequently cited), appends a few refinements to get over this defining-everything-but-meaning-nothing problem:

Collaboration is a recursive process where two or more people or organizations work together in an intersection of common goals–for example, an intellectual endeavor that is creative in nature-—by sharing knowledge, learning and building consensus.

Note the refinements focus on three particular human behaviors:
– sharing knowledge.
– learning.
– building consensus.

Again, there is no mention of technology.

There’s another definition of collaboration too, “the act of cooperating traitorously with an enemy that is occupying your country” (Word Net, Wikipedia). Note that the current Wikipedia page puts some words around this, trying to argue that the use of the term is linguistically incorrect.

Possible Refinements
If we think about “working together” or “co-laboring” in the context of “common goals”, another way of refining the definition is to look at work as a process. We work for a stated or hoped-for reason (the outcome), in a particular way (the work practice), together with or separated from other people (joint work or individual work).

Thus we could differentiate “types of working together” or “levels of collaboration” or “types of collaboration” based on what’s true in each of these dimensions.

  • “Do What You’re Told” Work … No input into defining the outcome (someone else does that, and may or may not tell you what it is), no responsibility for the work practice (do it how you’re told), your work is separated from other people. For example, a manager gives you a task to do, through a particular defined process, and you give the answer back to the manager who will then aggregate the answers from multiple people into something he or she is working on.
  • Cooperation … No input into defining the outcome, no responsibility for work practice, but work is done within the context of other people. For example, the same manager gives you a task to do, again through a particular defined process, but you have to work with other people to get the task done.
  • Delegated Collaboration … No input into defining the outcome, joint responsibility for crafting the work practice, and joint work with other people. This gets us into the situation where “sharing knowledge”, “learning” and “building consensus” is required. For example, a manager can define that they want something, but lacks the expertise to know how to achieve it (define the work practice) or do it themselves (carry out the task). Complexity reigns, and specialist skill or judgment is required.
  • Creative Collaboration … A defined group has input into defining the outcome (although whether it can be “stated” firmly upfront, or it is “emergent” and “morphing” throughout could be further refinement), they have joint responsibility for crafting the work practice, and they must work together–contribute their respective expertise and specialist knowledge–to achieve the outcome.

Note again that in all of these refinements, there is no explicit mention of technology. Collaboration is a human behavior.

In summary:
– “Collaboration” is a special case situation where people work together in a particular way towards a common outcome.
– In common usage, “collaboration” is a nearly meaningless term, because it defines too wide a scope of people “working together”. It’s a buzzword and a trendy term.

What Else is “Collaboration”?
In this post I have looked at “collaboration” in one sense of the term — as a human behavior. The next two posts will look at two other senses of the word “collaboration”, and I think the third post in this series will explain why “collaboration” is such a hot topic at the moment. But that’s for another day …

0 thoughts on “Defining Collaboration: Collaboration as "Human Behavior" (Sense 1)

  1. Michael,
    You and your audience may find our holistic framework for effective collaboration helpful. The 4 Ps of effective collaboration are: Purpose, People, Process and Place. See: The Four Ps of Effective Collaboration at http://allcollaboration.com/home/2009/12/15/the-four-ps-of-effective-collaboration.html
    We appply this 4 Ps framework to show that collaboration is more than team building and management. See: Collaboration Is More than Team Building and Management at http://allcollaboration.com/home/2009/12/20/collaboration-is-more-than-team-building-and-management.html
    Lokesh Datta
    http://www.allcollaboration.com
    Twitter: @LDatta

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