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