Imagine you’re customizing a product for a client. Managers from different teams work together to determine the requirements, and each team works on the customizations in their area. But when some changes are implemented, it triggers adjustments for other teams. The project’s deadline is extended and the workload increases.
This is one of the scenarios Ron Ashkenas wrote about in Harvard Business Review a few years ago. It’s a simple example of the difference between cooperation and collaboration and how easily they can be confused. In the example, every team is cooperating to customize the product, but they’re not collaborating so their changes work when put together. The result? They don’t reach their desired outcome – or they reach it a lot later, with a lot more work.
As the essence of teamwork, collaboration is the primary reason organizations build teams in the first place. But, as Ashkenas’s examples show, there’s often confusion over what collaboration means and how it differs from cooperation.
In reality, there are as many different ways to define and describe collaboration as there are teams practicing it, but collaboration and cooperation are on different levels. Let’s look at what each term means and where they fall on the scale of your team activities.
What is Cooperation?
Merriam-Webster defines cooperation as the actions of someone who is being helpful by doing what is asked for: common effort.
So, cooperation is a type of more passive team activity. Someone in a group makes a decision and the rest of the team cooperates by helping them accomplish their goals.
Cooperation is incredibly useful, especially when you’re working with experts in an industry. Strategic thinkers and people with great knowledge can help guide a cooperative group to success. However, if you’re looking for active teamwork in which multiple experts contribute thoughts and ideas that come together to form a solution, you need collaboration.
What is Collaboration?
The term “collaboration” derives from the Latin word com, which means together, and labōrāre, which means to work or labor. Merriam-Webster defines it as working jointly with others or together, especially in an intellectual endeavor.
We're all familiar with the labor part; it’s the “together” part that’s challenging sometimes. In collaboration, all members of a team share ideas and create a common knowledge base that they then need to work together to refine. Decisions are arrived at via consensus, not something handed down from one or two people.
Collaboration and teamwork have great creative potential, but they can also involve more conflict than cooperation, because participants need to find a solution together. Collaboration can be messy – after all, it starts and ends with people. The best collaborative teams set up ground rules, with roles, responsibilities, and processes to guide teamwork.
Where do Cooperation and Collaboration Fall on the Scale of Team Activities?
Team activities like cooperation and collaboration can be arranged along a scale of complexity with more complex activities also requiring higher levels of engagement. We usually see three different types of team activities: coordination, cooperation, and true collaboration.
As a general rule, collaboration is required as the work increases in complexity, urgency, and goals it sets out to accomplish. The intensity of the collaboration is defined partly by the objectives and context.
A social network, for example, is informal and networked. It’s generally more of a coordination effort than a truly collaborative one. At the other end of the spectrum is a highly structured, hierarchical project like an association committee using their private community to work together and finalize a white paper central to an organization’s mission.
Let’s look at each level of team activity and how it benefits organizations:
Coordination is characterized by topic-oriented information exchange and discussion. It’s more focused than engagement, but the content or work performed is rarely mission-critical. Chat and discussion threads are important, but topics and participants can be transitory.
Coordination Example: your team could use private discussions to coordinate when to send an email to your members.
Unlike coordination, cooperation typically has a tighter, project-based focus. Teams that are cooperating are driven by tasks and deadlines. Their work is often documented, but there isn’t a strong need for transparency or traceability.
Cooperation Example: Association committees and chapters cooperate to put on events or promotions, with multiple teams working together to complete the project and meet goals.
As work becomes more complex, teams are more likely to be engaged in true collaboration. These teams are ambitious, with goals to lead their industry, influence regulations, or improve standards of living.
Collaborative teams are characterized by having multiple input channels and expert stakeholders. They often co-create knowledge through focused work on technical topics. The deliverables and outcomes are of primary importance to the sponsoring company or organization. Institutional memory and traceability are important, and participation is meaningful and managed. Some of the most collaborative teams we’ve come across are creating industry-wide standards for everything from Wi-Fi to sound production in movie theaters. In these situations, having a system of record to review changes and show how conclusions were found is essential.
Collaboration Example: The Wi-Fi Alliance brings together hundreds of companies from different industries to collaborate and set standards for Wi-Fi technology and programs to ensure interoperability. They also certify products that meet their quality, performance, security, and capability standards.
Create an Environment that Encourages Teamwork and Collaboration
The challenges faced by organizations today are met by increasingly diverse, expert teams – teams that are often scattered across multiple locations. Understanding the types of activities your teams are engaged in allows you to equip them with the support, processes, and tools they need to meet the organization’s goals.
And if your organization has goal-oriented, collaborative teams, you can support them with the right environment. Use an engagement platform like an online community to encourage contributors and attract experts. Then give those teams a secure location to discuss, debate, and reach consensus. Create the right environment for collaboration, and you’ll set your team and your organization up for success.