Cutting through the hype: what “collaboration” really means

The word “collaboration” is so heavily over-used and over-hyped it’s becoming meaningless. People refer to all social software within a company as “collaboration,” and this causes confusion. Vendors get away with saying whatever they want because they’re not saying anything at all and companies end up failing in their “collaboration” initiatives.

Language is important and with this post I offer up a simple definition of the word “collaboration” — a definition that helps narrow the scope and domain of collaboration and clarify what it really is. Let’s begin with the story of how I’ve become known as “the language police” around the office when it comes to these topics.

Lessons in bad collaboration

During my years managing the intranet at a global nonprofit organization I encountered the strangest problem: even with the launch of new social intranet software and other collaborative tools, some people still suffered from and complained about poor collaboration. Crazy, right?!

This quandary forced me to contemplate the true nature of collaboration and explore its many dimensions. The ensuing cerebral journey led me to crafting a simple, useful definition for “collaboration” and alighting upon an important conclusion: collaboration is a deeply human activity, and no tool on its own can solve the problem of poor collaboration.

This conclusion may seem obvious to many savvy readers, but I once believed in the “if you build it, they will come” mentality (perhaps it’s time you watch Field of Dreams again). It took a decent amount of failure and organizational development theory for me to discover how organizational culture and managerial practices can either nurture or hinder good collaboration.

A useful definition for “collaboration”

In response to my lessons in bad collaboration I wanted to craft a definition of the term that could inspire a more holistic and useful perspective on the topic, as well as simplify the concept. I eventually landed upon this definition:

A simple definition, to cut through the hype

That’s it — just nine words to define “collaboration.” It’s a very simple definition. But such simplicity is desperately needed in a time when “collaboration” has become an overly-hyped term, where “social business” vendors are trying to sell new ways of working to confused companies, where business experts constantly extol the imperative for executives to build more collaborative and innovative organizations, and where overly-complex definitions serve only to obscure the truth.

A simple definition, once dissected, can shed a much more brilliant light on the true nature of a term than the most lofty and complex definition. So let’s explore this simple definition.

Dissecting “collaboration”

This simple definition includes three parts:

  1. Two or more people (team)
  2. Working together (processes)
  3. Towards shared goals (purpose)

This definition doesn’t once mention technology or software, but it does provide a solid framework for understanding exactly what collaboration is and isn’t. For starters, collaboration takes place in teams. A big group of people using social software together doesn’t translate directly into collaboration. It may be conversation; it may be cooperation; it may be knowledge sharing; it may improve employee engagement; but it is not collaboration.

Next, collaboration is about people working together and completing shared processes. This is where technology fits in, but not all of these processes are technological.

Finally… purpose. This is where a lot of the misunderstanding around collaboration stems. If people are working together but have no shared goals, they are “cooperating,” not “collaborating.” Cooperation is usually much more lightweight than collaboration and often has less focused goals.

Social intranet software is excellent for increasing cooperation and collaboration, but these two activities are not synonymous. As you can see from the simple definition, technology is just one piece of the collaboration puzzle and there is a limited scope of what “collaboration” actually is.

What isn’t collaboration?

Here we’re getting to the pith of the problem. People have come to refer to anything that has to do with social software within a company as “collaboration.” While a social intranet does offer tools for improved collaboration, not every interaction falls into that definition.

Microblogging is only sometimes collaboration: If you launch a microblogging tool such as Yammer to the whole company and tell people to just start posting status updates, that’s not collaboration. There is no team or shared purpose to lend the focus that is core to collaboration. Company-wide microblogging is “conversation.” It can facilitate serendipitous discovery, which is important. It can give people more of a voice, facilitate connections, and lead to collaboration. But simply posting status updates to anyone who is paying attention and engaging in conversations with whoever sees the status update is not collaboration.

When is microblogging actually collaboration? When members of a specific team are using microblogging to share updates and information about their joint work, that is collaboration. In such cases they may develop special hashtags or protocols (process) around their microblogging to get specific value out of it. Imagine a marketing team working towards a deadline and posting status updates about tasks completed or questions that arise. This is a specific group of people (the marketing team) working together (communicating about the project) towards shared goals (deadline for a project).

Social networking is not collaboration: Social networking basically means that employees have personal profile pages and can find and connect with other people. This is important, especially for large companies with many offices. But connecting and having an online discussion with a colleague in the New York office who sells the same product as you is not collaboration. It’s networking. It can lead to conversation, cooperation, and perhaps collaboration, but is not, in and of itself, collaboration.

Idea-sharing may not be collaboration: Many companies want to increase innovation and use social software for idea-sharing. Sometimes this is collaboration, but often it isn’t. If you just have a general “Ideas” forum, that is not collaboration — there is no specific group of people, there are no processes for working together, and there is no clear shared purpose. Even if you are collecting ideas around a specific problem (e.g. “How do we cut costs by 15% over the next year?”) that clear purpose doesn’t equate to collaboration. If someone suggests a good idea and you create a team to look into implementing that idea, that team’s effort will be collaboration. But general idea generation and idea-sharing are not.

When is idea-sharing collaboration? If you have a specific problem you need to solve (purpose), you involve a specific set of people in generating ideas (team), and you have a method for handling ideas that are generated (processes), then you have an example of legitimate collaboration on your hands.

Comments on news posts are not collaboration: If you have enabled comments on news posts on your intranet, kudos. That’s an excellent feature and can go a long way towards increasing dialogue across your vertical hierarchy and departmental silos and improving employee engagement. But it’s not collaboration.

When you think “collaboration”, think “teams”

The definition of collaboration presented in this post narrows down the scope of what collaboration actually is. Most often collaboration happens within fairly small teams— either time-limited project teams, cross-functional management teams, or functional teams.

We often think of collaboration as this big thing that the whole organization has to get better at, but collaboration is really something that happens on a smaller scale, within teams with clear and often narrow foci.

To improve collaboration you’ve got to help all your teams get better at collaboration, help all your managers improve their facilitation of collaboration, and help employees learn to operate in a collaborative mode. Improving collaboration is a specific domain and requires the use of social software tools in targeted ways.

Don’t believe the hype

Many people think of “social business” and immediately think of company-wide social software. They imagine launching mibcroblogging to every employee in their organization and calling that “collaboration.”  Some intranet managers no longer mention the words “social intranet” or “social networking” and instead replace them with the term “collaboration.” In the public discourse many people have replaced the term “Enterprise 2.0″ with “collaboration.”

This bait-and-switch approach has helped some people sell social intranets to their executives (which is good) and helped vendors and consultants capitalize on a growing trend, but has also created a big muddy mess of confusion.

“Collaboration” is a targeted, team-based activity. Social intranets and other social software can help to drastically improve collaboration, but you can’t lump all the possible features and activities into that one term. And collaboration is about people’s interaction with each other as much as about the tools we use.

When someone says you’ve got to get better at collaboration, ask, “Who, exactly, needs to get better at collaboration?” and, “How do they need to get better at collaboration?” and, “On what work do they need to improve their collaboration?” We have many useful words at our disposal and social intranets can improve not just collaboration, but communication, cooperation, coordination, idea-sharing, knowledge sharing and more.

Let’s work together to be clearer about what collaboration is, what the business value of better collaboration is, and what the full array of changes are that can lead to better collaboration.

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19 Responses to “Cutting through the hype: what “collaboration” really means”

  1. Michael Sampson

    Nice piece of work – you are taking the same thoughtful approach that I try to take in my book, Collaboration Roadmap.

  2. James Robertson

    I’m cool with this!

    I do think it’s worth differentiating social/conversation and collaboration, as they are very different in theory and practice.

    The worst thing has been watching a number of vendors (and others) start using the term “social collaboration”, perhaps with the specific intention of further muddying the waters.

    As you say, collaboration most naturally happens in small groups. In our writings, we flag two preconditions for collaboration:

    * shared sense of community
    * clear and common purpose

    As discussed in this article (ignore the dated title):

    So that matches up nicely with your observations. (It’s also a simplified version of Etienne Wenger’s thinking, as covered in this book “Cultivating communities of practice.)

    Thanks for the great post, James

  3. Jorgen Dalen

    Thank you for your clear thoughts! I totally agree that it makes no sense to talk about a whole organization collaborating. In the Norwegian language there is a term called “samhandling” (literally “co-action”) used to describe this less coordinated processes taking place on an organizational level. Samhandling, as opposed to collaboration, does not require a common goal or firm leadership, but is still an important asset of an organization – and also a useful term in the Intranet domain.

  4. Harold Jarche

    I agree that we need to be clear on what collaboration. However, “cooperation” is also a desired behaviour in the networked enterprise. It opens us to diversity and serendipity, not just getting the job done. This is necessary as work becomes more complex.

  5. Ephraim Freed

    Thanks for weighing in here gentleman.

    For those interested, here’s the link to Michael’s book “Collaboration Roadmap”

    @James Believe it or not I’m working on a post on “social collaboration.” Keep your eyes peeled. Also, that’s an excellent article you’ve linked to. It could just as well be called a “guide to launching enterprise social software.” I’m impressed you wrote that with such clarity and detail back when the term “Enterprise 2.0″ was first being coined. Actually, I’m not surprised.

    @Jorgen Thanks for this fascinating mini lesson on the Norwegian language. The term “samhandling” sounds like it was custom created to describe many of the uses of social intranets/internal social media. I’m really grateful that you shared these thoughts.

  6. alan pelz-sharpe

    Totally agree with you and with James’s comment – I spend a lot of time explaining very big difference between Social and Collaboration – conflating the two is ignorant marketing at best, and deliberately misleading/confusing at worst.


  7. Ephraim Freed

    @Harold You make excellent points. I don’t mean to downplay the value of cooperation, idea-sharing, etc. But since “collaboration” is so overly used I wanted to break the term down and explain what it is and isn’t.

    A lot of “cooperation” is mistakenly referred to as “collaboration” which muddies the waters because collaboration and cooperation require very different types of practices and support to succeed.

    That excellent article you linked to on cooperation in networks is a core reference in my upcoming blog post on “social collaboration.” Thanks so much for writing that article and sharing it here.

  8. Harold Jarche

    @Ephraim thanks for working on clarifying this. Collaboration is important to get work done and we don’t need to make it some fuzzy social thing. This confusion causes organizations to measure the wrong things and believe they are collaborating when they are just socializing. I would be careful adding ‘social’ to collaboration as that may confuse people, though I look forward to your post.

  9. Lene Pettersen

    Thanks for bringing up this theme! I often find that collaboration is perceived as a goal per se, but as I see it, following Hansen and his point that collaboration needs to be viewed in relation with an overall business goal. There is little point of collaborating for the sake of collaboration. @Jørgen, despite that we do have a term in Norwegian (‘samhandling’) that works better and covers more than ‘collaboration’, we still have the term ‘cooperation’ in English that pretty much covers the Norwegian term. Nevertheless, cooperation or collaboration, I still find them both to be used unconsciously, taken for granted and seldom broken up in pieces that could work as a roadmap (I haven’t read your book Michael, it’s now on my reading list).

  10. Jörg

    @Ephraim thank you for this definition because as a “social business” vendor I am really bothered by the misuse of this term in the market. With our approach we try to limit the number of people working together to a meaningful community really sharing a common goal – in our case the IT community only.

    I think the common goal is defined by the subject matter they need to collaborate on. My assumption is that in future the more communication oriented tools will serve as a hub for messages coming from specialized tools.

    Looking forward to receive feedback for such an approach.

  11. Stowe Boyd

    A great piece by @shiftcntlesc: Cooperation vs Collaboration

    ‘collectives collaborate, connectives cooperate’.

    My own small contribution to this: The Architecture Of Cooperation

  12. Jacob Morgan

    Great post. When I typically refer to collaboration I say “2 or more people working to create something or achieve a goal.” You make some great points here and one of the things we keep seeing is people confusing communication with collaboration although the goal is for one to lead to the other as a necessary first step.

  13. Ephraim Freed

    @Lene – Great points. Don’t just “collaborate” for it’s own sake, but rather with a clear purpose in mind. It’s important, for the success of a company and for adoption of a social intranet, to ask “what areas of our work would benefit from better collaboration and how can we nurture better collaboration?”

    @Jörg – You’re right, collaboration is about specific groups working together. Fostering that type of work is very different than fostering broad conversation and cooperation across an enterprise.

    @Stowe – Thanks for the great links my friend, both of which provide excellent insights into the nature of cooperation. We’ve heard the hype of “we need to collaborate better” throughout the enterprise software and management fields. Why aren’t we hearing “we need to cooperate better”?

  14. Ana Silva

    Good read Ephraim. I agree with you that we need to be careful with the semantics of what we mean by collaboration.

    And it is not just the vendors that abuse the word. I’ve done it myself because at times it’s complicated to talk about social or conversations or networking inside big orgs with top executives or other colleagues (concepts that don’t seem to be work-related to them). So sometimes, even if not entirely correct, it is easier to be a bit liberal with the term collaboration because people tend to associate it with “getting work done”.

    On the topic of what collaboration is and when do we need to collaborate I recommend Morten T Hansen’s book Collaboration.

  15. Ephraim Freed

    @Ana – Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You make an important point about the challenges of selling the idea of a social intranet to executives. This is a common problem. i’ve even recommended saying “collaboration” instead of “social” in the past, in desperate situations.

    The real benefit of having a crystal clear, more narrow definition for “collaboration” is that when you discuss social software with executives, and when you are planning your implementation, you can speak more cogently.

    Good collaboration has a specific look and feel and requires certain skills and practices. If that is really what you need, then you may be able to sell executives on an “improving collaboration” initiative that includes social software, but isn’t solely about the technology.

    @Jacob – It’s excellent to see that our definition aligns closely with that of the man who just wrote the book “The Collaborative Organization” Thanks for chiming in.

  16. Gabe Sumner

    Masterfully done.

  17. Mike Boogaard

    Your definition here is really useful. It is so true that the term collaboration has become extremely overused (and sadly very little practised) and ‘social collaboration’ is almost always confused with social networking. It is not that one is ‘better’ than the other but companies need to decide what they are really after. If it is collaboration, they need to make sure they have the drivers (culture, leadership) in place to support collaborative working (a platform will not make you collaborative…it helps facilitate collaboration).

    If you are looking for software that easily and quickly allows groups of people and individuals to exchange ideas, comments and feedback, perhaps an ESN is right for you.

    But my recommendation would be to specific about your objectives and understand the needs of your team.

  18. Ephraim Freed

    @Mike – Great points.

    Many people let the idea of implementing the hottest technology subsume a true focus on their business needs and objectives. That’s a sure path to failure, no matter what the technology.

    Good collaboration is tough and requires practice and real skills. Calling every piece of social software “collaboration” totally obscures this point.

    @Gabe – Thanks very much good sir.

  19. What "collaboration" really means (Th...

    […] Collaboration is an over-hyped term in the social software world. We offer a simple definition that makes sense and is useful.  […]


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