Is Collaboration Not Just Cooperation?

By Melodie Crumlin, CEO of PEEK.

Collaboration is one of those terms that brings interesting reactions in people. What does it really mean to you and your place of work?

If it is 'critical' to staying current and innovative, what does it look like? Do you need to elevate it above simply cooperating together? Or do your people simply co-exist - they have similar or complementary roles, but never interact to make the work more effective. Collaboration - authentic collaboration - is something much bigger than cooperation. It unlocks thinking and approaches we may never have thought of alone. It helps us see the world from more than only one worldview. It's when two or more people come together and co-create.

As CEO of a medium sized charity working to enhance the possibilities of disadvantaged children and young people as they Play, Create and Thrive. I must admit I haven’t always worked in true collaboration with others, however, in saying that my approach to working with children and young people has always been about getting alongside them and co-producing programmes around their needs and wants and as a result some truly remarkable outcomes have been achieved. Perhaps collaboration?

So what has been the critical success factor here?

Youngsters tend to have collaboration skills in abundance; Give a group of youngsters a task to do and then stand back. Collaborative play, is a style of play where children and young people are encouraged to divide their efforts so as to reach a common goal. This is not the same as children merely playing together, or engaging in a group activity; many group activities children commonly engage in are competitive in nature (e.g. the classroom environment, competitive sports, most video games), whereas collaborative play is not. In collaborative play, children are instead engaged in solving a problem by working together, in a system that lacks “winners” and “losers”.

What does it mean to foster collaborative play?

  • To put it simply, it means to encourage cooperation over competition wherever possible. Parents, educators, and caregivers should emphasize the benefits of teamwork and give children activities where their shared efforts will result in tangible success.
  • In the home, collaboration should be encouraged in general, to get children thinking in a team-oriented manner.
  • Teach children why teamwork and fairness are beneficial. It’s not enough to tell children to work together and share because it’s “good” or expected of them; children need to know why these behaviours are useful and relevant to them.

So, what happens is children and young people put us adults to shame with the way they collaboratively play together to achieve a task.  But, what can be learned from this? Has our collaboration skills been beaten out of us as we grow up into adults and forget to play? Does the world round about us – the media? Our workplaces? Expectations all contribute to our behaviours? 

As previously stated for me on the one hand I have saw the importance and significance of working in collaboration yet on the other hand when it came to working with other organisations I struggled.   So why did I struggle? What do the words Collaboration and Co-operation mean?

Co-operation is a term whose surface meaning is "working together." It carries a sense of agreement and helpfulness on the path toward completing a shared activity or goal.

People tend to use the term "co-operation" when joining two semi-related entities where one or more entity could decide not to cooperate. The people and pieces that are part of a co-operative effort make the shared activity easier to perform or the shared goal easier to reach. "Co-operation" implies a shared goal or activity we agree to pursue jointly. One example is how police and witnesses co-operate to solve crimes.

"Collaboration" also means "working together"—but that simple definition obscures the complex and often difficult process of collaborating.

Sometimes collaboration involves two or more groups that do not normally work together; they are disparate groups or not usually connected. For instance, a traitor collaborates with the enemy, or rival businesses collaborate with each other. The subtlety of collaboration is that the two groups may have oppositional initial goals but work together to create a shared goal. Collaboration can be more contentious than coordination or cooperation, but like cooperation, any one of the entities could choose not to collaborate. Despite the contention and conflict, however, there is discourse—whether in the form of multi-way discussion or one-way feedback—because without discourse, there is no way for people to express a point of dissent that is ripe for negotiation.

"It's best to enter collaboration as if you are part of the same community, desiring everyone to benefit."
Melodie

The success of any collaboration rests on how well the collaborators negotiate their needs to create the shared objective, and then how well they cooperate and coordinate their resources to execute a plan to reach their goals.

Thinking back to my earlier career in engaging with other organisations all I did was cooperate with others.  I think this was largely down to different rules in different organisations, the forced nature which raised all sorts of anxieties which were scary, pieces of work which didn’t go anywhere, a complete waste of time.   And in the many experiences of this 'pretend collaboration' it was clear that people who hadn’t thought about collaboration as a skill including myself at that time, believed that you must throw all the rules out the window: of purposeful interaction, good communication, having direction, having some sort of plan, and assume it's just a 'festival of love'.   That scared people off.   Quite often as humans we make assumptions, so when we communicate something, we’re collaborating.  We assume when we are sharing information, we are collaborating but all we are doing is cooperating.

But true meaningful and authentic collaboration require a certain mindset and a range of behaviours for it to be a success.  So, how did I learn to do it again?  It required a mindset that was smart and strategic, so when I was collaborating, there was a plan of how are we going to collaborate? What is it that we're doing together? What is it we're trying to achieve? What's our purpose, and how do we stay on track?

Collaboration is an important process because of the participatory effect it has on our knowledge. As I’ve discovered, collaboration is more than working together with some degree of compliance; in fact, it describes a type of working together that overcomes compliance because people can disagree, question, and express their needs in a negotiation and in collaboration. And, collaboration is more than "working toward a shared goal"; collaboration is a process which defines the shared goals via negotiation and, when successful, leads to cooperation and coordination to focus activity on the negotiated outcome.

"Authentic collaboration is something much bigger than cooperation. It unlocks thinking and approaches we may never have thought of alone."
Melodie

For instance, when people are transparent, there is no guessing about what is needed, why, by whom, or when. Also, because collaboration involves negotiation, it also needs diversity (a product of inclusivity); after all, if we aren't negotiating among differing views, needs, or goals, then what are we negotiating? During a negotiation, the parties are often asked to give something up so that all may gain, so we have to be adaptable and flexible to the different outcomes that negotiation can provide. Lastly, collaboration is often an ongoing process rather than one which is quickly done and over, so it's best to enter collaboration as if you are part of the same community, desiring everyone to benefit.

Over the last 24 months I have been involved in a collaborative programme involving a range of third, public and private sectors partners. The Dalmarnock Summer Club was developed in response to tackling health inequalities.  Developing social capital was one way to tackle the health inequalities that resulted from social isolation, low levels of support and low self-confidence. A range of protective health factors can result from strong networks, good levels of support and positive relationships which help to integrate individuals and communities, including increased self-esteem/confidence, a sense of connectedness and belonging and the ability to bring about change in an individual's life or in their community.

The programme and its partners developed a range of activities aimed at engaging with the local community in Parkhead, Dalmarnock and Camlachie to improve the quality of life, health and life chances of a population which has seen significant structural change in recent years both in terms of environment and population. Asset building, co-production and community engagement were the underpinning philosophies of the programme - enabling involvement with communities at grass roots to provide the services and support which local people felt were really needed.

The programme’s primary focus was to build resilience and capacity in the local community – a goal which resonated well with the objectives of all the partner agencies and organisations involved. The programme itself would help underpin partners’ aims and objectives and to further enhance partnership working and networking at a system level.  So what made this work?

  • Relationships – Trust
  • Open and honest communications- not afraid to ask questions
  • Varied Knowledge
  • Shared Vision
  • Views of everyone should benefit
  • Giving something up
  • Co creation of the programme alongside the families

My Top Tips:

  • Make sure there's a lot of varied knowledge around (inclusivity)
  • Help people come together and participate (community)
  • Circulate information, knowledge, and decision making (transparency)
  • Innovate and not become entrenched in old ways of thinking and being (adaptability)
  • Develop a shared goal and work together to use knowledge (collaboration)

In conclusion. Collaboration requires more than just cooperation to achieve meaningful impact and our behaviour can play a huge part in this alongside our knowledge. So, remember the next time you claim to be collaborating ask yourself the question – I’m I really collaborating or I’m I just cooperating?

This is a featured guest blog, written by Melodie Crumlin, CEO of Children & Young People's Charity - PEEK. You can find her on Twitter - @MelodieCPeek

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