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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.

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