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Are you actually collaborating yet?

Fresco by Diego Rivera showing collaborating workers

I hope you don't mind me asking and of course I won't tell your boss!

So you work in a team, I see.

Thus you collaborate automatically, so to speak...

Is that right?

The difference between cooperation and collaboration

In German, especially in everyday language, the terms Kooperation (cooperation) and Kollaboration (collaboration) are often used synonymously. Strictly speaking, collaboration is a special kind of cooperation. Working on a joint project or in a team does not (sorry) necessarily lead to collaboration.

As a rule, cooperation is based on a regulated process that serves to achieve a goal. There is a clear division of tasks. Subtasks are processed in the form of work packages, and partial services are added together. This results in a high proportion of individual work phases. Relevant knowledge is shared within the team. Communication takes place selectively, when the work process requires it.

Collaboration, on the other hand, is characterised by an open-ended process for working on a jointly defined problem. The degree of division of labour is low, the work process rather synchronous, with a low proportion of individual work phases. There is a high degree of constant communication, interactive exchange and thus mutual influence between the group members involved. This approach leads to joint knowledge generation (co-construction of knowledge) and networked learning.

Examples of cooperation and collaboration

Cooperation still is necessary in a huge range of processes, from a software rollout to a medical operations.

A striking example of collaboration is so-called mob programming. Here, several software developers share a computer. One person types, one keeps track, everyone thinks, contributes ideas, uncovers errors. The roles change regularly and frequently.

Interaction is the essential, distinguishing element of collaboration.

Interaction leads to knowledge generation and networked learning.

In practice, the two forms of work, cooperation and collaboration, often flow into each other.

After all, collaboration is a special form of cooperation. Who would be surprised, then, if a project with a clear division of tasks leads to collaborative work phases in which experts, faced with a challenging problem, enter into a self-directed exchange, the result of which is the co-construction of knowledge? Provided, of course, that the structures allow for this.

When collaboration is desirable

Which form of work is chosen - given that this is a conscious process - depends above all on the nature of the task to be worked on.

Collaboration occurs when individuals cannot accomplish the task(s) alone. This can be due to the size of the task, necessary (special) knowledge or time pressure.

Collaboration also occurs when a goal is sought that cannot be achieved by individuals. The causal problem may still be unclear, and it is also unclear how it can be solved. In this case, complex requirements, the need to unleash creativity, as well as the need to develop new knowledge, are usually decisive for the choice of the form of work.

Thus, collaboration usually also requires a higher degree of communication, a confrontation with other people and personalities as well as a renunciation of parts of one's own autonomy.

Final reflection and conclusion

Where do you stand with your team?

It is a fact that we are not dealing with a scale expressing quality from "here we still cooperate" (what a pity!) to "here we already collaborate all the time" (applause applause).

Rather, the core task of your team decides what degree of cooperation and collaboration is appropriate for its success.

P.S.: An impressive example of a product of cooperation from decades ago you find in the image above. It shows the Detroit Industry frescoes by Diego Rivera.

All in all, a very complex task that cannot be accomplished by a single person in a reasonable amount of time (fresco means "fresh", after all), but is feasible as a collaboration. Still, Diego is the one who got the credit.

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