Home > Uncategorized > Will That Be Coordination, Cooperation, or Collaboration?

Will That Be Coordination, Cooperation, or Collaboration?

November 11, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Idea: Three Words: Coordination, Cooperation, and Collaboration, are often used interchangeably. They shouldn’t be.

Recently I specified the requirements for collaboration:

Collaboration entails finding the right group of people (skills, personalities, knowledge, work-styles, and chemistry), ensuring they share commitment to the collaboration task at hand, and providing them with an environment, tools, knowledge, training, process and facilitation to ensure they work together effectively

but I didn’t define the term. The term is being cheapened (“collaboration tools”, “collaborative environments”) to the point where in many people’s minds it’s indistinguishable from cooperation and coordination, which are less elaborate and less ambitious collective undertakings. How can we differentiate between these terms in a meaningful way? Here are a few ways that I think they differ:

Coordination Cooperation Collaboration
Preconditions for Success (“Must-Haves”) Shared objectives; Need for more than one person to be involved; Understanding of who needs to do what by when Shared objectives; Need for more than one person to be involved; Mutual trust and respect; Acknowledgment of mutual benefit of working together Shared objectives; Sense of urgency and commitment; Dynamic process; Sense of belonging; Open communication; Mutual trust and respect; Complementary, diverse skills and knowledge; Intellectual agility
Enablers (Additional “Nice to Haves”) Appropriate tools (see below); Problem resolution mechanism Frequent consultation and knowledge-sharing between participants; Clear role definitions; Appropriate tools (see below) Right mix of people; Collaboration skills and practice collaborating; Good facilitator(s); Collaborative ‘Four Practices’ mindset and other appropriate tools (see below)
Purpose of Using This Approach Avoid gaps & overlap in individuals’ assigned work Obtain mutual benefit by sharing or partitioning work Achieve collective results that the participants would be incapable of accomplishing working alone
Desired Outcome Efficiently-achieved results meeting objectives Same as for Coordination, plus savings in time and cost Same as for Cooperation, plus innovative, extraordinary, breakthrough results, and collective ‘we did that!‘ accomplishment
Optimal Application Harmonizing tasks, roles and schedules in simple environments and systems Solving problems in complicated environments and systems Enabling the emergence of understanding and realization of shared visions in complex environments and systems
Examples Project to implement off-the-shelf IT application; Traffic flow regulation Marriage; Operating a local community-owned utility or grain elevator; Coping with an epidemic or catastrophe Brainstorming to discover a dramatically better way to do something; Jazz or theatrical improvisation; Co-creation
Appropriate Tools Project management tools with schedules, roles, critical path (CPM), PERT and GANTT  charts; “who will do what by when” action lists Systems thinking; Analytical tools (root cause analysis etc.) Appreciative inquiry; Open Space meeting protocols; Four Practices; Conversations; Stories
Degree of interdependence in designing the effort’s work-products (and need for physical co-location of participants) Minimal Considerable Substantial
Degree of individual latitude in carrying out the agreed-upon design Minimal Considerable Substantial

Where do teams, partnerships, think-tanks, open-source and joint ventures fit in this schema? The general definition of a team is an interdependent group, which suggests that collaborative groups are teams, coordinated groups are not, and cooperative groups may or may not be. Partnerships and joint ventures are both, I would argue, primarily cooperative undertakings, whose objectives evolve over time. Open-source developments can run the gamut among all three types of undertaking. So theoretically can think-tanks, though in reality most think-tank work is solitary and not really collaborative. Even the work of scientists on major international projects is, I am told, substantially individual, with a lot more coordination and cooperation than true collaboration.

The last two rows of the above chart may seem somewhat paradoxical. It is relatively easy to coordinate the activities of a ‘virtual’ group that must work remotely and asynchronously, and much harder (but not impossible) to achieve virtual collaboration, especially if the collaborators already know each other. But once the ‘design’ of the collective work-product is done, the implementation work of a coordinated group is usually very explicit, while the implementation work of collaborators is necessarily more improvisational.

So what? Well, in many cases, collective work may be dysfunctional because it is organized as one of these types of undertaking when what is needed is another type. Or, based on a misunderstanding of the nature of the collective effort, the wrong resources and tools are provided, or the preconditions for success are not met. And collaboration is not always a better approach than coordination or cooperation. In situations where the Wisdom of Crowds is valuable (prediction, optimization and coordination problems), independence of ‘crowd’ members is essential, and cooperative or collaborative processes can lead to ‘groupthink’ and actually detract from the crowd’s ‘wisdom’. There is nothing more frustrating than being invited into a supposedly empowered, collaborative team and then being charged with a task that needs nothing more than a good project coordinator.

It all comes down to what you are trying to accomplish. The ‘Purpose of Using This Approach” row of this chart is therefore perhaps the most important. A hammer, a wrench and a screwdriver are not interchangeable tools, and none is best for all situations.

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