Collaboration or Working Together
Collaboration, in its simplest form, means working together. It is a term that is widely-used in business for teams or individuals working on a common project, or with a common purpose. Beyond business, it is often used to express the idea of individuals with different skills working together towards a shared aim.
The term collaboration often refers to the use of technology to support sharing of documents, images, and ideas. Well-known platforms to support collaboration include Zoom, Skype, and Slack, but there are many more. These platforms, however, are only tools to support ways of working: they cannot of themselves create collaboration.
This page discusses some ideas about collaboration, and how you can improve your own ability to collaborate with others by developing your skills.
What is Collaboration?
collaborate, v.i. to work in association. n. collaboration. [L. collaborare, to work]
Chambers English Dictionary, 1989 edition
In business, collaboration is increasingly seen as the opposite of competition.
It is not the same as collusion, which means working together deceitfully, often in fraud, or to ‘play the system’. Unsurprisingly, this is illegal in many countries.
Instead, collaboration is working together to create something more valuable than either or any of you could create alone. In other words, by working with other organisations or individuals, either competitors or those in your supply chain, you can add more value for your customers—unlike collusion, where the end result is that you gain at your customers’ expense.
Working with the enemy?
Collaboration is sometimes used to mean ‘working with the enemy’.
In France during World War Two, for example, French people who chose to cooperate with the Germans were known as collaborateurs. This sense of the word is often pejorative, unlike the more positive connotations of the word associated with working together in business.
The main purpose of collaborating is to achieve something that neither of you could achieve alone.
It is particularly useful where you both (whether organisations or individuals) need to achieve the same thing, but you have very different talents and resources available. Of course, you could both buy in the missing skills and talents—but by working together, you avoid having to spend more, and you both gain.
Collaboration has become more important in recent years because both organisations and individuals have been encouraged to specialise. When you have more specialist skills, you are more likely to need others to fill in gaps in your skill set. It is also especially helpful when solving problems, because a broader range of backgrounds can often lead to better solutions.
There is more about this in our page on Problem-Solving.
Examples of collaboration include:
Trade, where countries, businesses, or individuals give something they have to someone that wants it, in exchange for something they want.
Kibbutzim, which are Jewish communities originally set up as communes, to share talents and work together for the common good.
Ballet, which is hard to imagine without dancers working together. It is very much a collaborative art form.
Game Theory: a view of collaboration
Game theory is an economic theory that describes how people are likely to behave. It suggests that people decide what to do based on the best possible outcome for them, but taking into account the actions of others.
In a repeated game (as in any kind of long-term relationship), there is an overwhelming incentive to collaborate, or be punished with loss of trust. This is a simplistic view of business, but it does show the fundamental importance of collaboration and relationships.
Starting to Collaborate
Research shows that collaboration is likely to be most successful where individuals have very clearly defined roles and responsibilities. This means that they are able to work independently on significant parts of their work. This fits well with the idea of collaboration as bringing together people with diverse skills for their individual contribution.
However, beyond defining roles very clear, there are also a number of skills that are essential or useful when collaborating with others.
Strong communication skills are absolutely essential.
It does not matter whether you are working remotely or face-to-face: communication skills are essential. You need to be able to listen effectively, and also get your own message across in speaking or writing. Without this, your collaboration will simply be ineffective.
For more, you may like to read our pages on Communication Skills.
Remote collaboration and communication
There are some very particular issues associated with remote collaboration, and especially communicating either in writing via shared platforms or in video-conferences.
It is much harder to see visual communication, such as facial expressions and body language via video-conference (and impossible to do so in writing). You therefore need to emphasise the non-visual elements, such as your tone of voice, and the words you choose. Smiling, believe it or not, can be heard in your voice.
Communication is harder work remotely, so it is much easier to switch off, especially in big groups. Try to make video conferences as short as possible to avoid fatigue.
Avoid jokes when communicating in writing (even if you use emojis to indicate them). They can often come across as insensitive or even rude.
Emotional intelligence is helpful in assessing people’s feelings, including your own
Working together, both in person and remotely, needs some degree of ability to understand and respond to both your own and other people’s feelings. People with good emotional intelligence tend to fit well into groups and find it easier to work with others.
However, there is more: they can also help group situations to run more smoothly. They are therefore vital to facilitate collaboration, especially if others in the group lack this particular skill.
You can read more about this in our pages on Emotional Intelligence.
Problem-solving and decision-making skills are extremely useful because of the reasons behind most collaboration
It is fair to say that many collaborations are established to solve particular problems. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that problem-solving skills are highly-prized during collaborations.
Decision-making is generally much harder in a group setting, such as a collaboration. It can therefore be helpful to have people with very good decision-making skills involved, because they can facilitate better group decisions.
For more about these two areas, see our pages on Decision-Making and Problem-Solving.
Being able to resolve conflicts effectively is essential when working with others
It is almost inevitable that there will be some element of conflict in any interpersonal relationship. When there are more people involved in a collaboration, conflict is more likely to arise. It is also unfortunately true that with more experts and specialists involved, conflict also becomes more likely, because each has their own (fully justifiable) reasons for their opinions.
It is, therefore, useful if at least some of those involved have good conflict resolution skills.
For more about this area, you can read our pages on Conflict Resolution and Mediation.
Groups and Teams
Before starting to collaborate with anyone, it is also helpful to understand more about the way that people behave in groups and teams. Belbin noted that people tend to take on very specific roles such as group facilitator, task leader, and ideas generator. He gave each of these roles a name. He also noticed that the most functional groups tended to have at least one person taking on each role. Each person could take on more than one role, but if any of the roles was unrepresented, the group tended to be less likely to achieve its goals.
You can find out more about Belbin’s team roles, and how to establish groups that are more likely to succeed, in our page on Team and Group Roles. There is more about teams in our series of pages on Working in Teams and Groups.
A final thought
Collaboration has become a fashionable term in recent years, but there is nothing new about working together with others to achieve a common aim.
It is something that most of us are expected to do sooner or later, whether at home or at work. Fortunately, it is also something that we, as humans, are really quite good at doing. However, it is also something that we have to work at, to ensure that we do not damage relationships with some people in building stronger relationships with others.