What is Collaboration?

Let’s start at the very beginning: what is collaboration?

The root word is composed of two parts: “co” and “labor.” “Co” means “together,” and we all know that labour means work! So at its very basis “collaboration” is “together working,” or for our more modern tongues, “working together.”

Clearly that’s a very broad definition, and it needs to be unpacked to mean something. In my work, I unpack that phrase into four distinct elements.

For the “working” part, I see purposeful activity towards a known or emerging outcome. Work is not about lounging around doing as little as possible – or at least, that’s not the way I was brought up to view work. Work carries the sense of bringing one’s skills, abilities, and knowledge to bear on an issue, project, opportunity, or task. There’s also a sense of an outcome being worked towards – that something needs to be created in the future that’s different to what we have today. That “something to be created” depends on the type of work we do, but common forms are a document that argues a position (for an academic), a proposal for a client (for a sales manager), a report for the executive team (for a manager), a new product for a particular group of customers (for a product development team), a two-day conference (for an event management company), or some alternative variation from a multitude of possibilities.

The “together” part requires joint and coordinated action – you can’t do something “together” without joint and coordinated action! I break this concept into two elements: communication and agreements. Communication represents the ongoing, day-to-day discussions as people work together and explore what has happened already, what is happening, and what needs to happen in the future. It’s a common means of ensuring that people are working together toward the same outcome.

Agreements are the principles that suggest how the team will work together today and into the future. They represent the ways that the different people involved will coordinate their work and act together – who does what, on what time scale, with what dependencies, and for which internal or external customers. These principles may be suggested by an external stakeholder, but have to be negotiated and agreed within the team if they are to mean anything. I used the word “suggest” above, because these principles are aways open for re-negotiation. Thus an agreement is like a statement arising from communication that states how the different people will work together, but at any time these can be changed – although doing so can be costly and time-consuming as the team or group re-develops its way of working together.

So in summary, collaboration simply means “working together,” and that can be viewed as being made up of four elements: action, an outcome-orientation, communication, and agreements.

5 Responses to “What is Collaboration?”

  1. Hi Michael,

    It’s great to see someone actually thinking about what “Collaboration” means. In my experience many organisations throw the word around with no concept of what it is, why they need to do it, or how they will know when they are doing it.

    I see collaboration as working together towards a jointly valued outcome. A point you make in your post, although you dont include it in your summary. I encourage clients to distinguish between collaboration, cooperation, communication and co-ordination.

    Keep up the great work, and have a great christmas and new year.


  2. Hi Simon – I appreciate your comment. And yes, it’s bandied around very freely, with very little meaning attached. I’m trying to change that, and I know you are too.

    Hope all is going well in your new role.


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