Collaboration: What Does it really mean?

February 9, 2011 - 58 Comments

If you type the word “collaboration” into any of the search engines, you’ll get 82 million results.  I’m quite sure this won’t surprise you since we hear the word “collaboration” all the time.

I have the privilege of speaking to audiences up to 100 times a year. And can you guess the most popular topic they ask me to address?  You got it. Collaboration!

I’ve learned a lot about collaboration in researching for these keynotes, and in discussing it with top business leaders. This has led me to the following five observations:

1.    Definition – There is a lot of confusion on the very definition of collaboration. If you ask 20 people, you might get 20 answers.

2.    Value of collaboration – For the most part everyone agrees collaboration is a good thing to do but many haven’t defined what value it brings to their company, or why to do it at all.

3.    How to do it? –  “Effective collaboration” requires a major focus on culture, the deployment and use of technology,  the adoption of process / governance for positive results. Few companies focus on all three.

4.    Bad is worse than none –  Morten Hansen points out in his book Collaboration, that bad collaboration is a waste time and resources and produces no results.  Deciding not to collaborate is a better option than bad collaboration.

5.    Used interchangeably with “innovation” –  There is clearly some confusion with the relationship between collaboration and innovation.  By being innovative you aren’t necessarily being collaborative and vise versa.  There are interdependencies between the two but they are not the same thing.
I believe these five points are worth exploring in greater depth but I’ll focus this blog on #1 – the definition of collaboration.   I know this word tends to be overused and lacks meaning for some, but let’s start collaborating and see what we can come up with.

#1 Defining Collaboration

I thought Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, had a very interesting — and sarcastic — comment on this topic.  He said, “When you say collaboration, the average 45-year-old thinks they know what you’re talking about:  teams sitting down, having a nice conversation with nice objectives and a nice attitude.”  (smile)

Ok, here’s what I found by searching for collaboration.

Wikipedia – “Collaboration refers abstractly to all processes wherein people work together.”
Oxford Dictionary – “United labour, co-operation; especially in literary, artistic or scientific work.”
Webster – “To work jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavor.”

All of these seem really outdated so I continued to look. Michael Schrage in his book No More Teams! defines it this way:   “Collaboration describes a process of value creation that our traditional structures of communication and teamwork can’t achieve.”  I like his introduction of the point that collaboration requires a process and the purpose is to create value.

I think we are on the right track but still not there.

So I continued to search and found this by Evan Rosen in his book The Culture of Collaboration: “Working together to create value while sharing virtual and physical space.” Rosen highlights that technology can bring people together and that they don’t need to be in the same location.  A very important point since technology, especially video, plays a key role in enabling collaboration across the enterprise.

Another key ingredient in the recipe is the concept of “wisdom of the crowds” or collective intelligence.  Mark Granovetter in his 1973 paper, The Strength of Weak Ties, highlights the importance of diversity in the areas of brainstorming, problem solving and ideation.  The more diverse the group, the better they are at these tasks.

It’s now time to throw my own definition into the mix.  Collaboration is highly diversified teams working together inside and outside a company with the purpose to create value by improving innovation, customer relationships and efficiency while leveraging technology for effective interactions in the virtual and physical space.

Now it’s time to hear your thoughts and definitions!  So please send your comments in.

Happy collaborating.

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  1. I love reading about your thoughts on collaboration. If you really think about it, collaborating is a skill that we learn to get better at. We have to learn to send and receive first before we can work together. The true and simple meaning to me is the literal meaning of working together towards a common goal. The goal has to be motivated by the sheer meaning of valuing the benefits of collaborating. Sharing our thoughts and time with people will help us learn how to treat eachother on the basic human level. Learing to live together in this world is collobartion. A family is a collabartion; An organization. It is built on the bases of sharing, if we don’t share the group will fall apart. It is essential we come back to realize the importance and benefits of collaborating.

  2. Collaboration is working together to achieve a goal, but in its negative sense it is working as a traitor.[1] It is a recursive[2] process where two or more people or organizations work together to realize shared goals, (this is more than the intersection of common goals seen in co-operative ventures, but a deep, collective, determination to reach an identical objective) — for example, an intruiging endeavor[3][4] that is creative in nature[5]—by sharing knowledge, learning and building consensus. Most collaboration requires leadership, although the form of leadership can be social within a decentralized and egalitarian group.[6] In particular, teams that work collaboratively can obtain greater resources, recognition and reward when facing competition for finite resources.[7] Collaboration is also present in opposing goals exhibiting the notion of adversarial collaboration, though this is not a common case for using the word.

    Structured methods of collaboration encourage introspection of behavior and communication.[6] These methods specifically aim to increase the success of teams as they engage in collaborative problem solving. Forms, rubrics, charts and graphs are useful in these situations to objectively document personal traits with the goal of improving performance in current and future projects.

    Since the Second World War the term “Collaboration” acquired a very negative meaning as referring to persons and groups which help a foreign occupier of their country—due to actual use by people in European countries who worked with and for the Nazi German occupiers. Linguistically, “collaboration” implies more or less equal partners who work together—which is obviously not the case when one party is an army of occupation and the other are people of the occupied country living under the power of this army.

    In order to make a distinction, the more specific term Collaborationism is often used for this phenomenon of collaboration with an occupying army. However, there is no water-tight distinction; “Collaboration” and “Collaborator”, as well as “Collaborationism” and “Collaborationist”, are often used in this pejorative sense—and even more so, the equivalent terms in French and other languages spoken in countries which experienced direct Nazi occupation.

  3. In discussing any topic the ideas that surface only gets better with several people collaborating. The old saying about the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

  4. collaboration? the key of success

  5. Great post – again. Thanks a lot. Please keep them coming 🙂

  6. Imho Collaboration is firstly not just about technology, its about behavior. That might sound strange from a SED/CTO working at Cisco, but running a knowledge organisation over 8 countries in Northern Europe my main challenge is to find the next level of impact/productivity for my Systems Engineers towards our customers & partners. They are all well developed and great people but often still to much “locked-up” in their functional area/country, acting like clever, motivated but single braincells. Its my job to transition them to work as a unified brain. There’s an enormous growth potential in that. Of course the enabling technology is crucial, but first and foremost I need to change some ethics from: “Knowledge is MY Power” towards: “Sharing is OUR growth”.
    So to not be protective (or humble) about your own knowledge and achievements and start sharing.
    Soon they will be realising that although sharing takes time, the ROI (Return on Interaction) is huge!

    Next motivating them to pro-actively expand their internal human network by using virtual (2.0) technology to connect, bond and collaborate. All this while they (including myself)grew up being taught you need to meet physically to achieve this.
    Since from a demographics point of view only 6% of my organisation is between 20-30 yrs old you will understand this a real transition for the majority (including myself being 40 🙂 ) of my people.

    It also includes a transition of my leadership, walking the talk and positively reward the individuals that lead the way. And The-Y are often leading…

    Although a challenge, the rewards are big, both from a development and career perspective, as well as finding the next level of impact towards our customers!


    • Hendrik,
      you highlight some very interesting points and love your approach to how your are activating the changes. Culture plays a critical role and is normally the most difficult thing to change. Adaptive leadership is really key and building a level of trust among the team is really fundamental in any collaborative effort. I will be addressing the culture issue in some of my upcoming blogs. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and please keep it coming!

  7. Nice article with lot of interesting points! I’ll no doubt be stalking this site in future for more articles like this. Well done and thank you for sharing.

  8. Agree @Soo Kim more to add is collecting the very best part from everyone and then uniting them togather to a powerfull cloud is called collaborating.

  9. Very nice post, i thank u and greeting from germany


  10. In my opinion collaborating is working together towards a desired outcome with the same goal in mind. Collaborating means effective teamwork

  11. I think it takes a Team for collaboration, not a group of individuals.

    Example: Baseball Team.
    It started out with a group of individuals who showed interest, brought their expertise, recognized and placed in the Team for the common goal, to win the Championship.

    Through the training process, the team members built relationships and trust was established within each player.

    The Coach, the leader of the team, starts building up the team. Coach identifies each players strengths and places them accordingly:
    1st, 2nd, 3rd, Pitcher, short stop, etc.
    Coach also identifies when the player is hurt, and rests the player to recoup and assigns another task to the player.

    On the outfield, each player is expected to play their position and trust is in place and once again, their common goal is to win the game.

    For a team, assistance is necessary when needed.
    Example: outfielder assisting the short stop.
    That assistance is instinctive, natural, not forced.

    However, when trust is broken, brings doubt, difficult to manage and difficulty to achieve the team’s Goal.

    Example: 2nd player does not trust 1st baseman.
    2nd baseman leaves his position to 1st because he thinks that 1st baseman can not catch the ball to strike the batter out. 2nd base could be potential for risk.
    That example shows that the 2nd player does not only trust the 1st baseman, but the Coach decision as well.

    Results in difficulty in managing and breaks the commorarity within the team. When trust is broken, less likely for the team to achieve their goal timely.
    However, when collaboration within the team exists, more likely for them to achieve the goal, timely and effectively.

  12. And to add, I love that you included Morton Hansen’s point.

    “Deciding not to collaborate is a better option than bad collaboration.”

  13. Great topic of discussion.  From reading the posts, I feel that the common definition of collaboration is finding effective ways to reach the common goal. The ideas or approaches mentioned above for collaboration are really great.  When opening the discussion to a bigger forum i think we would get infinte ways to set forth to ahieve the common goal. 

    1. A timeline. How long will it take to the end?
    2. Action steps. Point by point, what you will do and when you will do it.
    3. Resources you will need to draw from. What will it take? Who will need to be involved for help or advice?
    4. An evaluation tool. You need to evaluate from time to time whether you are progressing or not.
    5. A celebration. 🙂

    I find that before starting the process of collaboration, emphasis should be placed first with relationship building.  That creates commerarity.  I feel that when relationship is built, trust is established therefore, working together would be more effective and creative. 

  14. Thank you for writing on this subject. I have been looking for something like this and your blog helps me a lot to understand the topic better. Waiting for your next post.

  15. I believe these five points are worth exploring in greater depth but I’ll focus this blog on #1 – the definition of collaboration. I know this word tends to be overused and lacks meaning for some, but let’s start collaborating and see what we can come up with……………………Good Artical

  16. By being innovative you aren’t necessarily being collaborative and vise versa. There are interdependencies between the two but they are not the same thing.

  17. Exciting, brother..keep posting..!!

  18. Carlos,

    A slight re-wording of your definition:

    Collaboration is a strategy enabling highly diversified teams to work together–inside and outside an organization both physically and virtually–to create value through expedited innovation, enhanced (customer) intimacy and increased efficiencies.

    Defining collaboration as a strategy enables customers, consultants and vendors to compare and contrast the means and risks of enabling that strategy (e.g. voice, video, web, IM, blogs, social media, contact centers, wikis, communities, self-service, email, tablets, kiosks, cloud, hosted, CPE, managed, etc.).

  19. This is a great article. I know that personally. Collaboration has made my company a much more effective environment.

    I feel that collaboration on your team inspires passion and a drive for what ever it is that your doing when you listen to and are open to peoples input.

  20. Simply put, collaboration is a state of mind! It all starts with a mindset.The rest follows in terms of culture, process and technology in that order.

  21. A good example of Collaboration is Cloud Computing………the most hot topics today in Information Technology.

    Thanks for an excellent post.

  22. You are quite the intellect, I would say, in the business world, anything that a company does to rake in profits would be a collaboration.

  23. @Graham- My thoughts exactly!

  24. Great post! and thanks Graham Janes for a good comment.

  25. It’s a great post…

    Nowadays collaborative technology has got their popularity and the definition confusing us. but this post enlight me,, thanks to you

  26. Exciting 🙂 – looking forward to learning more from you.

  27. Thanks for the nice post

  28. Collaboration = Borderless Sharing & Creativity

  29. Great posting, Carlos. Like the way you’ve broken a big topic into dimensions.

    To me Collaboration is defined as… harnessing the power of many to do, create, invent, something better or otherwise impossible.

    We, at Georgia Tech, believe Collaboration is one of six megatrends that will shape the future of media and content. (See GT FutureMedia Outlook:

  30. Was what we just witnessed in Egypt- a group of people working together to make something happen- a great example of collaboration?

  31. Collaboration opens up the potential of creating in this networked world. It leverages the digital world we live in and allows opportunities for co-creating and the realizing the value of collective intelligence. As an educator, I try to instill in my students from a very young age the ability to share and contribute to each others understanding of a topic and work together effectively to complete given tasks. The ultimate goal being to help them to become more productive members of society in the future.

  32. 3:52 a.m. – seriously Carlos???

  33. Just so long as nobody mistakes good collaboration for decision by committee which is a bad thing and dillutes creativity!

  34. “If you type the word “collaboration” into any of the search engines, you’ll get 82 million results. I’m quite sure this won’t surprise you since we hear the word “collaboration” all the time.”

    82 million results very much. If I did not expect so many could be

  35. In summary, collaboration is working together and seeking our a common goal. To that end, a group needs to spend time determining what they have in common and building on that instead of focusing on differences.

  36. In my opinion collaboration means when multiple people agree on one single topic or thing and achieve the objective.

  37. I think your final definition sums it pretty well for me.

  38. Collaboration means quislingism .it show that by Collaboration we can solve any big work easily

  39. My definition is here:

    “Defining and Measuring Enterprise Collaboration”

  40. My own definition: “collaboration is being an active member of a group that works together to achieve a common goal”.
    Being an active member means you not only participate in conversations, meetings and interactions passively (i.e. only listening and learning) but you add your piece of contribution to the group. You listen, process, create and share materials that add up to the ones shared by others.
    Because collaboration is a group activity, you need to feel part of that team. You need to be yourself and at the same time a piece of a bigger organization. That’s the meaning of being a “member of a group”.
    Your work can’t be disconnected from what the group is doing. The team needs to work as a single unity, which is at the same time a requirement to achieve the goal as well as a consequence of that goal being considered as something valuable by each and every member of the group.

    Nice article by the way, hope to read more of the following points!


  41. Is going from generation ME to generation WE, as Rachel Botsman said in her Book “What is mine is yours…: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption”…

    social platform is accelerating this phenomena, where the individuals see them self speaking with coleagues, peers, adults….making a flat ground field , everyone fell they can make a contribution in the same level, they field “part of…” meet the Mashlow pyramid basic layers….
    I love 21st century…..

  42. Collaboration is positive as long as all the people that are collaborating have an objective in common and put their best effort.

  43. Great Post Carlos!

    I have made the point of Mark Granovetter you mentioned as one of the most important element in deciding a team. Diversity is key in collaboration.

    I often think about the great session you gave to the acumen fellows in New York on technology and social networks. I am starting to use both more. It is a great journey of discovery.


    Acumen Fund Fellow 2011-Patna

  44. Carlos, to me Collaboration means working together toward a common goal. As a Board member of a local literacy program, we frequently collaborate with other organizations to help our community. We recently collaborated with the New Mexico Coalition for Literacy to reach out to the public about having state funds cut to zero. (We were able to stop the government from making the cut and they are now taking a closer look at the issue.)

  45. I never thought of it but I think that point 4 is right on target. You should always know when is a good time to collaborate when it is not. Sometimes the obstacles to collaboration are too big to justify the process/effort.

  46. Let me also say that Collaboration is very important for growth in today’s business, ever wondered what wikipaedia would have been like if not for Collaboration

  47. Good article. I would say Collaboration is binding different attitudes and thoughts to form a new rigid approach. I have read some books about collaboration and very fond to reading it. Loved your writings.

  48. Sounds great, looking forward to learning more !

  49. I’ve been thinking an awful lot about this over the past few months. In fact, I argued that E2.0 and SocBiz terms could/should collapse to become Collaboration. ( I also have advocated for The Collaboration Curve and The Collaboration Cycle. (see the main site from above)


    “As the noun of the word ‘collaborate’, it embodies what Enterprise 2.0 and Social Business strives for, which is people working jointly together to address business, human, customer, employee or societal challenges and opportunities through technology, and in person.”

  50. Carlos,

    Nice post, thought provoking… but I think we’re being overly specific — Collaboration is so many things, trying to tie it down is impossible.

    I tend to think something more general yet powerful

    Collaboration is the activity of a group of people who share a common charter (or mission, or objective, or some better word)…

    This definition does not lead to the physical(or virtual) manifestation of where / how they meet nor does not imply a time-bound activity… the group’s charter could be “share knowledge” which is a form of collaboration…