Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 22, Issue 44;   November 9, 2022: Cooperations That Need to Be Collaborations

Cooperations That Need to Be Collaborations


Modern products and services are so complex that many people cooperate and collaborate to produce them. When people are cooperating but the work actually requires collaborating, risks arise that can threaten the success of the effort.
Agricultural silos

Agricultural silos. These structures are used for storing grain. As a metaphor for organizational structures, silos are regarded as being relatively independent of each other. But the silos in this image clearly are not. For example, they share a loading mechanism, parts of which are clearly visible at the top of the line of silos. Not visible are the structures that keep the silos aligned with each other, so as to prevent their shifting from distorting the members of the loading mechanism.

So it is with organizational silos. Although we regard them as independent, and although they often seem to be working at cross-purposes with one another, they are linked, often in ways that are outside the awareness of the people who operate them.

If organizational silos were truly independent their ability to hamper collaboration would be limited, because individuals would be able to collaborate undetected. It's the ability of the silos to monitor activity in other silos that enables them to intervene and stifle cross-silo collaboration. [Serrat 2017]

As I noted last time, we tend to think of collaborating and cooperating as similar — so similar that we use the words interchangeably at times. That looseness does little harm in itself. But trouble can arise in two ways. The first is when we allocate time and resources as if we were collaborating, when we're expected only to cooperate. And the second is when we allocate time and resources as if we were only cooperating, when we're actually expected to collaborate.

Briefly, a collaboration forms when individuals or entities form an alliance to achieve a single shared objective. By contrast, 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 accommodating each other.

An illustration of the risks of confusion

Here's a small illustration of the risks of working cooperatively when collaboration is required:

DataMemes, Inc., is a small (fictional) manufacturer of add-on devices for smartphones. One of their add-ons is an entry into the home-based day trading market. It uses a sophisticated big data analysis package to spot trends in news feeds. It then exploits that information to forecast price movements in financial instruments. Within DataMemes itself, the hardware division (Hardware) and the software division (Software) compete for everything from influencing company strategy to allocating resources. But they do cooperate in a variety of ways, including shared use of the test facility and developing product strategy. Even so, because DataMemes regards itself as primarily a hardware company, Software is viewed mostly as a junior partner.

For DataMemes' customers, both Software and Hardware are critical components. If DataMemes Hardware and DataMemes Software could act as collaborators, they would be more likely to anticipate and respond to trends in customer needs. As things are now, DataMemes market offerings are probably biased in favor of hardware-dependent enhancements such as low cost, high speed, longer battery life, and higher capacity. They are likely biased against software innovations, such as neural networks and applications of artificial intelligence. What customers actually want is a balance of both Hardware and Software perspectives. A collaboration of peers is more likely to recognize this; a cooperation between Hardware and Software with Hardware dominant is less likely to do so.

From cooperation to collaboration

Modern organizations carry out most of their work in groups. We can describe work groups as lying somewhere along a spectrum from cooperation at one end, to collaboration at the other. Most groups lie somewhere between the two poles, and probably move around a bit over time.

There are risks Cooperation is necessary but not
sufficient for achieving a single
shared objective. Success is more
likely when the group adopts
a collaboration configuration.
associated with ambiguity as to where a given group lies on the Cooperation/Collaboration spectrum. And there are also risks associated with individuals misunderstanding where their work group lies on that spectrum. These risks are of two kinds. One set of risks arises when a group needs to be a collaboration, but instead is configured as a cooperation. And the second kind is the opposite: a group that needs to be a cooperation, but instead is configured as a collaboration. In this post, I sketch four risks associated with cooperations that need to be collaborations. What follows are examples of these risks. Next time, I examine collaborations that need to be cooperations.

Four risks

Below are four examples of risks that arise when a group is engaged in work that requires a collaboration, but which is approaching the work as a cooperation. In what follows I use the notation PG to denote the primary goal of the group — the goal that would best be achieved through collaboration rather than cooperation. And I use the notation SG to denote any of the multiple Subordinate Goals that the group is working to achieve by cooperation.

Risk of multiple objectives competing for resources
When a group is a cooperation, and when collaboration is what's needed, the group is in a situation analogous to that of DataMemes in the illustration above. There is a risk that the members of a cooperation might not grasp the importance of forming consensus around a single shared objective that everyone aims for. Instead, multiple competing objectives can persist, with everyone cooperating to some extent to permit the supporters of each objective to work toward their own.
This condition leads to defocusing of the group's attention and resources. The group starts projects but cannot make much progress on them because of resource shortages and schedule conflicts. And in the extreme case, there are many, many meetings because of the large number of projects "in flight."
Risk of not forming a strong identity
Collaborations require a single shared objective. But to develop and maintain a single objective that's truly shared, group members must identify with the whole of the group. An ill-defined group identity — or worse, an ambiguous identity — creates difficulties for groups forming effective collaborations because their members tend to maintain affiliations with other objectives. A group that lacks a strong identity risks remaining little more than a cooperation.
Group members must recognize that cooperation is necessary but not sufficient for achieving a single shared objective. Attaining a single shared objective successfully is more likely when the group adopts a clear identity that incorporates attributes of the objective.
Risk of contention for authorship
Although the group is configured as a cooperation, its people might celebrate as a success the achievement of its primary goal, PG. This celebration could be more elaborate and multi-dimensional than what follows achievement of any of its other goals (the SGs). For this reason, there is a risk of outbreak of contention for authorship of the work that leads to the PG. Everyone with even the dullest political sense might want to claim credit.
Even before the group achieves its PG, contention for credit can evolve into toxic conflict within the group, which can erode the willingness of group members to cooperate. That can reduce the chances of success in achieving the PG or any of the SGs.
Risk of free-riding and social loafing
When a group works to achieve its goals, its members must contribute effort to reach those goals. If the group has multiple goals, there is a risk that some members might withhold effort if they regard it as advancing a goal they see as less worthy than another group goal.
In a collaboration, as compared to a cooperation, such withholding is less likely, for two reasons. First, in a cooperation, there are multiple goals. Because some group members might feel a stronger affinity for some of the SGs than for the PG, they might withhold effort from PG and lavish effort on their favored SG. [Arnold 2012] With regard to PG, this behavior is termed social loafing or free-riding. [Karau 1993]
Second, because there is only one goal in a collaboration, withholding effort from the PG is withholding effort from the group. There is no SG to which to apply that effort. Because withholding is equivalent to withdrawal, withholding is deterred in a collaboration.

Last words

In the next part of this series, I examine some risks associated with operating as a collaboration when the goals at hand are better suited to the attentions of a cooperation. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Collaborations That Need to Be Cooperations  Next Issue

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[Serrat 2017]
Olivier Serrat. "Bridging organizational silos." Knowledge solutions. Springer, Singapore, 2017. pp. 711-716. Available here. Retrieved 17 October 2022. Back
[Arnold 2012]
Nike Arnold, Lara Ducate, and Claudia Kost. "Collaboration or cooperation? Analyzing group dynamics and revision processes in wikis," Calico Journal 29:3 (2012), pp. 431-448. Available here. Retrieved 15 October 2022. Back
[Karau 1993]
Steven J. Karau and Kipling D. Williams. "Social loafing: A meta-analytic review and theoretical integration," Journal of personality and social psychology 65:4, (1993), pp. 681-706. Available here. Retrieved 17 October 2022. Back

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