A Crowdsourced Definition of Collaboration - InformationWeek
Government // Mobile & Wireless
04:30 PM
Venkatesh Rao
Venkatesh Rao
Connect Directly
Moving UEBA Beyond the Ground Floor
Sep 20, 2017
This webinar will provide the details you need about UEBA so you can make the decisions on how bes ...Read More>>

A Crowdsourced Definition of Collaboration

Socially speaking, are you most comfortable working in teams, tribes, or co-groups? Each has its strengths and weaknesses.

I realized recently that my understanding of the term "collaboration," in the flavor-of-the-decade sense, was extremely poor, so I decided to do some digging. As this Google Trends view shows, popular interest in the term peaked in 2004. Media interest began in late 2007 and plateaued by 2009.

chart: Google Trends

The flavor-of-the-decade sense of the term isn't the same as the dictionary definition, prescriptive definitions offered by major commentators, or technical definitions. So I decided to try to articulate, with hindsight, the zeitgeist definition in all of its sloppy glory. Because that's the definition that matters. There's also a sort of aesthetic logic to this approach: Shouldn't a definition of collaboration be collaboratively created?

To construct my definition, I assembled a sort of tag-cloud of terms associated with collaboration, filtered out those that seemed to reflect the madness rather than wisdom of crowds, and strung together a strawman paragraph. Then I added some of my own theoretical ideas to make the strawman more coherent. Here's what I came up with:

Collaboration: Generating value within a nominally large, leaderless, temporary, partly voluntary, loosely defined, and partially open group that comes together and figures out what do with itself at the same time. The group relies more on exit than on dissent to resolve conflict, is animated by a shared narrative rather than a shared identity, and is driven by a culture of consensus. The group possesses both mechanical and organic solidarity, and is indifferent to its institutional environment unless a conflict with that environment emerges. The group does not engage in direct conflict with alternative group models that compete with it, but instead lets some sort of broader market mechanism determine its fate.

You can work out for yourself why each of the qualifiers and characterizations is in the definition.

In crafting this definition, I realized that we need a word for the kind of group structure that does the collaboration, so I picked "co-group." This word makes the comparison with other forms of group work easier. Co-groups that acquire a layer of formal management can be considered communities, but most co-groups never acquire that level of structure.

It's particularly useful to compare co-groups to two other group types.

1. Teams do teamwork. They work toward objectives defined before the team is. In contrast, co-groups come together before purposes are defined.

2. Tribes fight battles. They're temporary groups that form and disband as appropriate, within a "segmentary" society under situational leadership, to respond to external threats to a shared social identity.

The team was the main group model studied by business thinkers until about 1997. It's still the dominant form within organizations. The tribe is a modern overload of a traditional construct championed by some writers, notably Seth Godin and Dave Logan.

Let's contrast the co-group from the team and tribe.

Collaboration Vs. Teamwork

I put the transition date between teamwork, done by teams, and collaboration, done by co-groups, at around 1997, with the dissemination of Eric S. Raymond's The Cathedral and the Bazaar.

The big jump in connotations was that teamwork referred to work by a small and closed group situated within a given organizational context and specifically chartered by some sort of legitimate authority (such as a CEO). In contrast, from the beginning collaboration has implicitly been based on the idea of a fuzzy, open group that spans organizational boundaries and isn't chartered by any recognizable authority to do anything in particular.

1 of 2
Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
How Enterprises Are Attacking the IT Security Enterprise
How Enterprises Are Attacking the IT Security Enterprise
To learn more about what organizations are doing to tackle attacks and threats we surveyed a group of 300 IT and infosec professionals to find out what their biggest IT security challenges are and what they're doing to defend against today's threats. Download the report to see what they're saying.
Register for InformationWeek Newsletters
White Papers
Current Issue
IT Strategies to Conquer the Cloud
Chances are your organization is adopting cloud computing in one way or another -- or in multiple ways. Understanding the skills you need and how cloud affects IT operations and networking will help you adapt.
Twitter Feed
Sponsored Live Streaming Video
Everything You've Been Told About Mobility Is Wrong
Attend this video symposium with Sean Wisdom, Global Director of Mobility Solutions, and learn about how you can harness powerful new products to mobilize your business potential.
Flash Poll