What Is Collaboration?

Collaboration is an increasingly important skill across a variety of sectors and industries, yet it remains to a large extent an ambiguous concept.  We asked 15 experts on collaboration what they thought and here’s what we found.

What is Collaboration

Collaboration is important across multiple industries and multiple sectors.  In education, collaboration increases teacher performance and student achievement, in business it accelerates innovation, in the voluntary sector it increases outreach and impact, and in the public sector it improves policy outcomes and service delivery.  Perhaps more importantly, it is becoming increasingly clear that collaboration across multiple organizations is necessary to tackle the world’s most complex problems such as climate change, or food security.  Despite its importance, however, it’s often used simply as a buzzword.  There is  a general lack of clarity about precisely what is meant by collaboration and how it differs from related concepts, especially cooperation.

This lack of clarity extends beyond common usage and into the academic literature.  Collaboration is sometimes narrowly referred to as “teaming-up” to beat the competition.  It has also been described as a decision-making process, an esprit de corps, an alliance, and the source of innovation.  Key features identified in the literature include trust, reciprocity, commitment and shared norms.  These features, while important, do little to establish the distinctiveness of collaboration.

Some of the more comprehensive academic literature that defines collaboration does so by asking public servants what they think collaboration is and how it differs from other concepts.  We embarked on a similar exercise with our experts in collaboration at SecondMuse, a collaboration and innovation consulting company.  The following definition captures the common themes explored by these experts, based on their experiences initiating and facilitating both large and small scale collaborative activities:

“Individuals may be said to be collaborating when they are guided by a shared purpose to engage in a reciprocal process of sharing and reforming ideas to create or discover something new which is collectively owned.”
To these experts, collaboration is a process best used when multiple perspectives are required to identify or better define solutions.  It is most effective when tackling complex challenges affecting large numbers of people, including those not directly involved in finding solutions. Conversely, a collaborative process is not useful when potential collaborators are attached to certain outcomes, strong hierarchies prevent an equal playing field, or participants are firmly convinced they have the right and only answer or solution. Collaboration is distinct from cooperation in that it involves a deeper sense of ownership, deeper relational elements, greater investment and greater commitment to shared visions and goals.

In addition to initiating and facilitating large and small scale collaborative efforts, SecondMuse is committed to pursuing a research agenda to advance our knowledge of the art and science of collaboration: to understand the conditions under which collaboration is most effective, to advance the methods and instruments utilized throughout collaborative process, and to better understand the impact of collaborative processes on the betterment of the world. Given the global, interconnected problems facing the world’s population, the time is no doubt ripe for such knowledge to be meaningfully generated and applied. If other institutions would like to work with us on exploring the art and science of collaboration, please email us at hello@secondmuse.com.  We are keen to engage with others.

About Jake Grandy

Jake works with SecondMuse in areas of sustainability, social innovation and strategy. Currently he’s involved in projects concerned with systems-level change for positive social and environmental impact. He has worked in public and non-profit sectors in both the United States and Latin America and has earned advanced degrees in ecology and economics. When not working on SecondMuse projects, he continues his graduate work, pursuing a Ph.D. in Strategic Management at the University of Southern California where he explores corporate strategic and technological responses to political and social pressures.

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