Defining Collaboration

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For the past year I’ve been a member of a university task force looking at defining strategy around online collaboration tools. As we prepare the report of that group for the Provost, we realized that we hadn’t defined collaboration, which seems like a problem when you want to decide which kinds of digital tools help support that activity.

So I volunteered to define collaboration for the report.

To my surprise, I didn’t find a lot of useful definitions around the web or in print. So here’s what I’ve come up with mostly on my own – does this sound right?

What do we mean by “collaboration”?

While Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines collaboration as “to work jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavor”, not all group work is collaboration. When we speak of collaboration we mean work undertaken by a group of people acting as peers in order to accomplish an agreed upon goal, even if (as is frequently the case) the details of that goal are not clearly understood at the outset. This work is characterized by its informal and non-hierarchical nature, and by the lack of formal roles and controls. People cooperating in a collaborative activity determine the needed actions collectively and as individuals within that collective volunteer and commit to completing tasks to achieve the goal.

The lack of formal organizational structures in collaboration should not be seen as leading to a lack of accountability. Tasks are committed to and undertaken, and the collaborators need to be able to track decisions and assignments and monitor progress on tasks until the endeavor’s goal is achieved.

“The unstructured exchange of ideas to create value”. – Evan Rosen, The Culture of Collaboration

4 thoughts on “Defining Collaboration”

  1. I’ve always found out that one of the hallmarks of collaborative activity is the high level of unstructured communication and information-sharing.

    A formal process might have structured communication (scheduled meetings, even the brief dailies of Agile methods) and defined information sharing (workflows in SharePoint, for example). But outside of the defined process, the individual often remains a siloed entity. In fact, it seems that many formalized project management methodologies encourage this.

    But a collaborative activity involves communication and information-sharing outside of the defined structure (if any) of the project. It also implies availability on the part of the participants – you can’t be a party to collaboration if you’re unavailable to your collaborators.

    Hrm. So if we borrow some Web 2.0 buzzwords, we get Transparency (your last point about tracking/monitoring), Openness (informal unstructured communication), and Availability (being receptive to and participating in Transparency and Openness).

    Yikes. That was a whole blog post there.

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  2. Do all collaborations lack formal organizational structures? I think that we collaborate on our projects here even though there is a formal structure of Leads, Sponsors, Project Manager, etc.

    I think it is the “working as peers to exchange ideas and create value” portion that is important. I think you can collaborate in formal structures (I collaborate with our CIO/VP of IT and the Technical Directors) and in structured methodologies.

    M2CW

    Jim

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  3. Hey Oren. You already have two comments from other Jims, so I thought I’d continue the trend. 🙂

    I personally like your definition and I think it applies well to certain types of voluntary collaboration, but I think in this context it doesn’t take into account the fact that formal organizational controls and concerns are ALL OVER both the work of this task force and the types of collaboration it was considering.

    The types of collaboration that catalyzed the formation of the task force (research, primarily) very much operate in standard hierarchical and formal ways.

    A number of the major issues brought forth to the task force had to do not just with using tools in ways that enable the view of collaboration you describe above, but that also comply with the regulations, controls, and rules set up by organizations (granting agencies, the universities, etc.) Integration with authN and authZ middleware (formal controls) was one major issue. Getting data out of the tools for retention and reporting was another.

    I don’t mean to sound cynical, but the main drivers for this task force were not people wanting to voluntarily come together to work on something without formal controls and rules; they were people contractually obligated to work with others to produce specific, measurable results or face stiff consequences.

    I know we talk about “volunteer effort” a lot at the UW but I think we need to keep in mind that no one is really a volunteer as long as we’re drawing a paycheck or receiving federal grant money. 🙂

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  4. Hey Oren. You already have two comments from other Jims, so I thought I’d continue the trend. 🙂

    I personally like your definition and I think it applies well to certain types of voluntary collaboration, but I think in this context it doesn’t take into account the fact that formal organizational controls and concerns are ALL OVER both the work of this task force and the types of collaboration it was considering.

    The types of collaboration that catalyzed the formation of the task force (research, primarily) very much operate in standard hierarchical and formal ways.

    A number of the major issues brought forth to the task force had to do not just with using tools in ways that enable the view of collaboration you describe above, but that also comply with the regulations, controls, and rules set up by organizations (granting agencies, the universities, etc.) Integration with authN and authZ middleware (formal controls) was one major issue. Getting data out of the tools for retention and reporting was another.

    I don’t mean to sound cynical, but the main drivers for this task force were not people wanting to voluntarily come together to work on something without formal controls and rules; they were people contractually obligated to work with others to produce specific, measurable results or face stiff consequences.

    I know we talk about “volunteer effort” a lot at the UW but I think we need to keep in mind that no one is really a volunteer as long as we’re drawing a paycheck or receiving federal grant money. 🙂

    Like

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