Updated January 3rd, 2022. Crises like the pandemic have highlighted the significance of effective collaboration for organizational success—particularly in a hybrid workplace setting where many of us jump around the various synchronous and asynchronous collaboration tools; but do we even understand what the term collaboration means?
The word collaboration is so overused and overhyped it’s becoming meaningless. Even with the launch of intranet software, video technology, and other collaborative tools, some people still suffer from, and complain about, poor collaboration.
This forced us to contemplate the true nature of collaboration and explore its many dimensions. The journey resulted in a simple, useful definition for collaboration, and arriving on 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, but it took a lot of failure and organizational development theory to discover how organizational culture and managerial practices can either nurture or hinder good collaboration.
What does collaboration mean?: A useful definition for collaboration
In response to bad collaboration we crafted a definition to inspire a more holistic, useful, and simpler perspective. We landed upon this:
Two or more people working together towards shared goals.
That’s it — just nine words to define collaboration. Such simplicity is necessary when the term has become overly-hyped; especially where digital workplace vendors are trying to sell new ways of working to confused companies, and where business experts constantly stress the importance of building more collaborative and innovative organizations..
Dissecting the meaning of collaboration and understanding what is collaboration
This simple definition includes three parts:
- Two or more people (team)
- Working together (processes)
- Towards shared goals (purpose)
This definition doesn’t mention technology or software, but it does provide a solid framework for understanding what collaboration is and isn’t. For starters, collaborating takes place in teams.
A big group of people using social software together doesn’t equate directly to collaborating. It may be conversation; it may be cooperation; it may be knowledge sharing; it may improve employee engagement or the digital employee experience; but it is not collaboration.
Next, collaborating 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. 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.
Intranet software is excellent for increasing cooperation and collaborating, but these two activities are not synonymous. Technology is just one piece of the puzzle and there is a limited scope of what collaboration actually is.
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What’s the best method of collaboration?
While an intranet offers collaboration tools, there is no one perfect tool or method for all roles and activities.
Collaboration can be grouped into three broad categories: simple collaboration, document collaboration, and structured collaboration.
Simple Collaboration (instant messaging and microblogging)
Tools that allow for instant response times are great for tasks geared around coordination—like preparing a project for launch. However, they can be distracting, and can remove people from deep concentration. Commenting may work for increasing dialogue, gathering feedback, or editing a document or project. Unfortunately it will fail when building something new.
When members of a specific team use microblogging to share updates and information about their joint work, it becomes collaboration. Imagine a marketing team working towards a deadline on a marketing plan 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).
Document collaboration (Google Docs, Git)
Where simple collaboration is focused more on the conversations between people and teams, document collaboration is focused on a deliverable. Think of a sales team working together on a proposal, or a software team coming together to contribute to a source code repository.
Document collaboration tools have value for the individual, yet are even more powerful when connected with a team.
Structured Collaboration (forms & idea sharing)
Where the first two types of collaboration do not have any required format, structured collaboration does. Either explicitly with a series of fields (e.g. a vacation request form), or implicitly via a specific topic (e.g. an Idea or Q&A forum).
Many intranets allow users to complete a form to request things like vacation, or a new computer. Typically, there is some kind of workflow process to review and approve these requests. Unfortunately, many of these systems (while meeting our definition of collaboration) aren’t always easy to use. When done correctly, intranets should make it easy to collaborate around fielded data, allowing for flexibility in the process and conversation around the best ways to achieve a task.
The other type of structured collaboration revolves around a topic, like idea management and Q&A forums. By limiting their context these areas become more focused and directed. Idea forums can act as the nucleus for future collaborating, such as when an employee identifies an opportunity for cost savings, which could then be spun out into a project for further collaboration.
As you will see, identifying the best way to collaborate can be confusing. There is no one tool to rule them all approach to collaboration. Collaboration is role and context dependent. Sam Marshall of Clearbox Consulting has done a further exploration of these ideas in his blog post titled Collaborating without documents in the digital workplace.
Collaborating happens within small groups of people—think project teams, cross-functional management teams, or functional teams. While collaboration can happen with two or more people, there is an upper limit as to how many people can collaborate at once. Attempts to collaborate across an entire organization will result in noise, distraction, and annoyed staff.
We often think of collaborating as this big thing that the whole organization has to improve, but it is something that happens on a smaller scale, within teams with clear and often narrow focus.
Why collaboration is important
Many people correlate collaboration with social software. They imagine purchasing a piece of digital workplace software and launching it to every employee in their organization and calling that collaboration.
Collaboration is a targeted, team-based activity. Intranets, extranets, and other social software can help drastically improve it, but you can’t lump all the possible features and activities into one term. And collaborating 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, “What work do they need to improve their collaboration?”
Let’s work together to be clear about collaboration, what the business value of stronger collaboration is, and what the full array of changes are that can lead to better collaboration.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in 2012 by Ephraim Freed and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
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