Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 22, Issue 43;   November 2, 2022: Collaborations or Cooperations?

Collaborations or Cooperations?


Modern products and services are so complex that many people cooperate and collaborate to produce them. Strangely, few of us have given much thought to the difference between cooperating and collaborating. The two do differ, and the differences matter.
Oscar Wisting, a member of Roald Amundsen's party, and his dog team at the South Pole in 1911

Oscar Wisting, a member of Roald Amundsen's expedition to reach the South Pole, and his dog team in triumph at the South Pole in 1911. In the world of European polar exploration, hauling equipment in dog sleds was controversial at the time, even though Arctic peoples had been working with dogs in this way for millennia.

Although most readers of this post no doubt regard dogs as pets and companions, Amundsen and his party viewed their dogs differently. In some sense, they viewed their dogs as friends and collaborators, as willing partners in the effort to reach the South Pole. That the humans killed many of the canines when the task demanded it (as planned) doesn't contradict this view, for the slaughter of the dogs was extremely upsetting to the explorers. But such was the ethos of the day, and the imperatives of the situation. As Amundsen later wrote about the mood of the explorers after the deed was done, "The holiday humour that ought to have prevailed in the tent that evening — our first on the plateau — did not make its appearance; there was depression and sadness in the air — we had grown so fond of our dogs."

The photo is from Amundsen's account of his journey to the South Pole, The South Pole, (now available from Cooper Square Press, but originally published in 1913 by J. Murray). It also appears in Amundsen's autobiographical work, My Life as an Explorer (Doubleday, Page & Company, New York: 1927). The photo is part of the collection of the National Library of Australia.

We often use the words collaboration and cooperation as if they were interchangeable. They are not. They're similar, in that they both denote processes in which multiple people (or entities) work in such a way that their respective efforts are closely related. And from a distance, people who are cooperating and people who are collaborating can seem to be engaged in the same way. But they are not.

To see that the two terms — collaboration and cooperation — have different meanings, we need only reflect on how we use language. For example, within a business unit working on multiple projects, when we mean to refer to a group of people who are collaborating with each other, we can speak of "a collaboration." But when we mean to refer to a group of people who are cooperating with each other, we rarely speak of "a cooperation." Indeed, Microsoft Word, which I'm using to compose this post, indicates a possible grammatical error at every point at which I use the word cooperation in that way.

We do have the noun "cooperative," which means, "an enterprise or organization owned by and operated for the benefit of those using its services." [Mish 2005] But the noun "cooperative" doesn't apply to a group of people who are cooperating with each other within a business unit.

Because we so rarely use the word cooperation as a noun to refer to a workplace group of cooperating people, I feel free to use it in that sense in this post (and the next two) without risking ambiguity. So in this post, when I refer to "a cooperation" I mean a group of people who are cooperating to achieve their various respective goals.

When When we mean to refer to a group of
people who are cooperating with each
other, we rarely speak of "a cooperation"
we assess the performance of people in an organization, we must take care to distinguish cooperation from collaboration. And when we divide the work of a business unit, we must choose carefully between asking people to collaborate and asking those same people to cooperate. When we confuse cooperation and collaboration, we can get disappointing results because those results might differ from what we expect. In the next post I suggest some reasons why such disappointment isn't surprising. To support that exploration, I begin by examining more closely the differences between collaborations and cooperations.

A collaboration forms when individuals or entities form an alliance to achieve a single shared objective. [Huggett 2018] The members of the collaboration all consider themselves to be co-authors of the work product the collaboration produces.
A cooperation is a loose collection of individuals or entities who are willing to assist each other in achieving their respective individual objectives, or the objectives of others. The assistance they provide might include actual effort, or it might consist of merely adjusting their schedules or shifting responsibilities to accommodate each other.
Collaborations have defined identities. They have names. They might be categorized as projects, initiatives, skunk works, or strategic partnerships. Some even have their own facilities and financial resources.
Cooperations rarely have names. They are rarely categorized differently from the organizational units that host them. For example, although the people of the Marketing Department cooperate with Engineering in presenting Product X to the market, they do so as a consequence of their functional responsibility, rather than as a consequence of belonging to a cooperation with a defined identity.
Collaborations usually form by intention. They often happen when people recognize a need and acknowledge that they cannot meet that need acting alone. The prospective collaborators know what the missing pieces are, and they seek others who can provide those pieces. When they find willing partners, the collaboration is formed. Custom within the collaboration resolves any resource usage conflicts.
Cooperations don't form by intention, and we rarely recognize them as entities. The people of a cooperation just go about their business without actively obstructing each other. When there is a conflict about the use of some resource, the affected parties negotiate shared use. When one member of the cooperation needs something from another, they negotiate a resolution. When cooperation breaks down, and negotiations fail to resolve resource usage conflicts, organizational hierarchy prevails. When one member achieves his/her/its objective, that member might adopt a new objective, or withdraw from the cooperation, or move on, while the other members of the cooperation press on toward their objectives. If there is a shared recognition of success, the credit goes to the hosting organization, rather than to the cooperation.
Collaborations have inception dates and termination dates. They usually persist continuously between those dates, but some collaborations experience suspension and resumption. Terminations usually coincide with achieving their objectives, which might be delivery of a working system, successfully executing some action, or issuing a final report. Early terminations are possible. In some cases, collaborations can be reorganized into new or existing collaborations.
Because cooperations lack identities, they also lack inception dates and termination dates. Many persist indefinitely, though they might vary dramatically in their effectiveness over their lifetimes.
A vision that transcends operations
A collaboration is an alliance of individuals or entities working to achieve a single shared objective. For example, the carpenters, electricians, and plumbers working on constructing a house form a collaboration. They share a coherent vision — they understand that they're building a house. They must cooperate to do this. But because the unexpected is inevitable in such activities, from time to time they must collaborate to modify the vision to make it achievable.
For cooperations to be effective, their members must share an understanding of what effectiveness is. They must agree to adjust their activities from time to time to enable the cooperation to operate smoothly. For example, the staff of your local public library performs various tasks as required by their customers. They all agree on an operational vision: they provide service that meets certain performance goals to serve the community. They provide that service by cooperating with each other. But the cooperation itself requires no more elaborate vision regarding its objectives.

Last words

The differences between collaborations and cooperations manifest themselves in a range of indirect effects. For example, many performance management systems include standards that encourage cooperative behavior. They also include standards intended to encourage high performance within the collaborations people are assigned to. At times, efforts to meet one standard conflict with efforts to meet another. That is, within a collaboration, it's possible to place your own performance at risk by extending yourself to cooperate with members of another collaboration. This tension, coupled with pressure for high individual performance, can cause people to place cooperation at lower — or lowest — priority.

In Part II of this exploration I examine the risks associated with confusing collaboration with cooperation.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Cooperations That Need to Be Collaborations  Next Issue

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[Mish 2005]
Frederick C. Mish, ed. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition. Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2005. Back
[Huggett 2018]
Jon Huggett. "Why Collaborations Fail," Stanford Social Innovation Review, (June 4, 2018), Available here. Retrieved 17 October 2022. Back

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