Collaboration -- what the heck is it?

Posted by J Matthew Buchanan at June 12, 2005 10:50 PM

‘Collaboration’ is, no doubt, a buzzword with a bullet.  We’re being bombarded with products and services that promise to foster collaborative relationships and make existing collaborations more effective.

Great marketing hype.  But let’s get down to basics.  What exactly is a ‘collaboration’?

One listing on Google gives this definition:  to work together and cooperate on a project.

Ok.  Not sure that really helps.  I think its more that just “working together” on a project.  Thinking about it in the context of patent practice, an attorney could claim to be collaborating with a client on a patent project if he simply sent an e-mail or two to the inventors asking a few questions about the invention.  That’s “working together,” isn’t it?  Sure.  But, I don’t think its a collaboration.

It seems something more is required.  But what?

Some would have you believe that the missing “something more” is the right technology.  As if using the right collaborative software package turns every relationship into a collaboration.  Take the patent practice example again.  Using a “collaborative environment,” the patent attorney could post a draft application to the workspace and start a discussion with the inventor regarding the various questions he has.  Once the inventor responds using the discussions in the environment, the attorney could revise the application and file it.  Again, the attorney and inventor are working together on a project.  It’s hardly a collaboration, though.  For me, it seems that they simply eliminated e-mail from the project.  Cool, but not collaborative.

So here’s the disclaimer (sorry for not putting it at the beginning of the post):  I don’t know the answer.  I’m not sure what is needed to transform standard working relationships into full-blown collaborations.

I’m getting an idea, though. Rethink(ip) is a collaboration, I know that.  Indeed, its quite an effective collaboration (slap me if I’m wrong, guys).  So now I’m closely watching it and learning.

Why?  Well, to start, I think it would be pretty cool to give Google a better definition of the term.  Oh yeah, and I think it will help build better client relationships and deliver more effective service.

Along the way, I (we) will try to share some tips on effective collaborations….  We’ll even share some of our experiences with the latest and greatest collaboration software environments (yes, we do have one we use and love). 

Hopefully someday we’ll be able to define the thing.  I am prepared, though, for the possibility that we’ll never be able to actually define it.  I suppose in a worst case scenario, we could just resort to the classic definition of obscenity:  You know it when you see it.

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James Dellow Says:

June 13, 2005 10:49 PM

You are right about the technology: Simply using collaborative software doesn't turn every relationship into a collaboration - communication, information sharing and coordination through collaborative software can help people collaborate (i.e. work together) towards a achieving a goal or particular outcome. The sum of all collaborative tasks should be bigger than the whole, which makes collaboration hard to define if you just look at the tools.

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