What do we mean when we talk about ‘collaboration’? And how does it differ from words with a family resemblance like ‘cooperation’, ‘coordination’, and even ‘teamwork’. Let me start with a broad definition of collaboration:
People with different skills and perspectives co-creating ‘something’ that none of the individual members could have created alone.
The ‘something’ could be anything from new understandings about a problem or solution, a new process or product or event. As Michael Schrage says in his book Shared Minds: “. . . there is nothing routine about it. Something is there that wasn’t there before.”
So how does this differ from related terms?
Cooperation: Is about saying and doing things that make making working with others an agreeable and constructive experience. A group can be cooperative, however, while only producing a routine outcome. Cooperation can simply be compliance.
Coordination: Is about all the parts of a system working together efficiently – each part knows what to do, when to do it, in what order, and where the output needs to go next. It’s about efficient and effective relationships between the parts, but like cooperation it may not produce anything that wasn’t there before.
Teamwork: Is about working together to achieve a shared purpose, but teamwork itself doesn’t necessarily reach the level of ‘collaboration’. Some teams might be geared toward achieving relatively routine, non-surprising outcomes. You want the team to comply with policies, procedures and processes rather than collaborate and create.
That said, in today’s complex environment in which new and unexpected challenges occur frequently, a good degree of collaborative effort is likely to be necessary in most teams.