Collaboration defined … but what does it look like?

Collaboration with Henry T.  2011 (WIP)Ephraim Freed at ThoughtFarmer has a piece on What "collaboration" really means

The word “collabration” is so heavily over-used and over-hyped it’s becoming meaningless. People refer to all social software within a company as “collaboration,” and this causes confusion.

And James Dellow followed that up today with his own thoughts about collaboration, Collaboration is simply working with, together where he focuses on the etymology of the "co-" words as having a common root of "with, together".  And the "labor" part is pretty obvious.

These definitions are great.  But there is a piece missing for a lot of organizations: what does this look like in practice? What behavior would you see? It's difficult to give a single description because it depends on the context.

One example that I heard from Greg Howell at the Lean Software & Systems Conference in May was: "Real collaboration happens when we agree to move money across boundaries." 

I think there may be something to the idea of people working across boundaries - even when money isn't the concern. Those boundaries might be organizational, or they could be geographic or cultural as well. Interesting.

Another direction is that we see people working together without expecting to be directly "repaid" the next time a need arises. This happens in cultures where "pay it forward" is the norm. If not, people quickly grow tired of always being the source of help, without getting help when I need it from other places in the organization.

This feels like a different version of the discussion of What is your evidence of knowledge management? that ran last year.

So, if you hear someone say that their organization is great at collaboration, what behaviors do you expect to see?  If they say they are struggling with collaboration, what behaviors are missing? What is happening instead?  And then there is that last question - maybe this should be first - why is collaboration important to you?

[Photo: "Collaboration with Henry T. 2011 (WIP)" by Imajica Amadoro]

13 Comment(s)

Jon Husband said:

You're right, this is a good FIRST question. The only other first question I think is useful is "Is collaboration necessary or critical to getting this done effectively?"

Which is almost the same question as the one you posed at the end of the post., I think.

Jon Husband

I was recently looking at this from a slightly different angle - who benefits from collaboration. Comparing it to the recent Olympics and a boat race vs road race. Rowers have to work together for a shared outcome. In a road race, a team of cyclists work together but only one is crowned the ultimate winner. In organisations, I think most collaborative scenarios are more like the latter. And the behaviour that is often missing is recognising and rewarding valuable contributions that make a difference to the outcome, regardless of who ultimately benefits.

Post is here:

Interesting post, Jack. I just bumped into this post by Harold Jarche and when I first read your post it brought back memories of an older post of mine
I like how Harold distinguishes collaboration from coordination. (Or is coordination just a type of collaboration?) I don't mean to get into a discussion about definitions. But looking at different types of collaboration does help define what it looks like in practice, how it can be facilitated/learned, I think.

Thanks, Samuel. Always good to have more reference (and more reading) materials. You guys both make good points.

Camille Trentacoste said:

Our team is planning a move to an open office plan, and the word "collaboration" is getting thrown around a lot. As a manager, I am concerned about keeping workloads fairly balanced in this environment. Most articles I have read suggest that this open setting is great for the people with less experience, but actually lowers the productivity of the most knowledgable workers, who end up spending more time as resources to colleagues and less time on their own work.

Even in the traditional setting we have now, I've sometimes been slow to realize how badly one of my reports was floundering with her workload because others were regularly pitching in to help her.

When mixed teams are built with awareness and sensitivity, the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts. But without careful management, the net result can mask poor performance under the group umbrella, while dragging down the achievements of the best workers to meet the common denominator.

I agree. Collaboration word is so overused. In my view it is all about how to "work together" and "share information". Some of my additional thoughts is here - How to reinvent PLM collaboration?

Nice to see you here, Camille.

I wonder if one of the motivations behind open-plan offices is so that management can see what is going on.

Your comment about your foundering colleague/report makes me think that there is a familiar effect at work here. Knowledge work - work that isn't inherently physical - is very difficult to see and understand what is happening and what people are doing. We have to make a concerted effort to make that work observable. I've enjoyed blogging and social media ("enterprise 2.0") for those purposes. I have also employed simple Kanban systems that visualize the flow of work and the quantity of work up on a wall, where people see what is happening with the system of work. People can see where work is getting stuck and help move it along strategically - and management can see the work and step in where necessary.

Strange... I've been involved in driving collaboration IT tools at Intel for years, had in fact led the team researching future collaboration paradigms there. We agonized a lot about which tools would lead to better collaboration, but Collaboration itself never seemed to me to need a better definition than "If someone works alone, he isn't collaborating; as soon as two or more people work on a single project or task together, they are - by definition - collaborating ("working together", in fact)". Why would we need more complex definitions? Likewise, the question of "why we need collaboration" is answered with "if the task requires more than one person, you need collaboration - i.e. to have two or more people on it - or it will not get done".

What am I missing?

Nathan- You are right that the basic definition of people working together seems sufficient. The angle I've been trying to take has to do with what people expect to see happening as a result of "improved collaboration" or implementation of "collaboration tools." People have been working together for millennia - what is it that is going to be better / different if collaboration is happening in new ways?

I am concerned when people sell the tools (or want to buy them) without a well-defined reason behind what is going to be better as a result.

And of course, collaboration doesn't require tools. What elements of the way we do things together need to change to improve our situation?

Jack Vinson Author Profile Page said:

Nathan (and all)-

I just came across an article on Collaboration "Social Collaboration: A Work in Progress" by Rob Preston at Information Week:

This is the reason I wrote this post. The article says improving collaboration is on everyone's mind, but then it focuses so much on the technology that I don't know what he thinks improved collaboration will BE. Actually, I do: it will be a suite of installed software. There will probably be some people using it too.

Jack Vinson Author Profile Page said:

And another article. This time from Greg Lowe and along the same lines as my thinking. (published back in May).

Perhaps it comes from having spent many years driving collaboration in a large global corporation, but I somehow can't buy the assumption in the Greg Lowe article that people typically have the choice whether to collaborate or not, as in the example he gives. Most instances of collaboration that come to my mind are where there is a large task that requires many people to execute it - from half a dozen to hundreds - and these people are living in a number of different countries. Thus, they must collaborate to get the job done at all, however slow it may be.

Of course you then want to give them better tools and processes to make it faster rather than slower - that's the main challenge we were dealing with...

Nathan - I'm writing another post on the topic. There are many takes on this. I do appreciate that pretty much all work of significance these days requires help from others. A question is whether the leadership (people paying bills) think that there is something to be gained from doing that stuff better.

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