James Mullan Collaboration can be hard to define
Jinfo Blog

Friday, 20th April 2012

By James Mullan

Abstract

What does collaboration mean to you? Does it mean sharing documents with colleagues and collaborating on them? Collaboration should be about people working together to develop a common approach to situations and devising tactics and strategies that help them move forward. 

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What does collaboration mean to you? Does it mean sharing documents with colleagues and collaborating on them? If so you might want to rethink your definition of collaboration after reviewing the blog post "Sharing files isn't collaboration" by Jack Vinson.

In his post Jack argues that exchanging files and data is not collaboration. In his words " It's simply exchanging files and data". So what does collaboration look like in a typical organisation? Jack argues that collaboration should be about people working together to develop a common approach to situations and devising tactics and strategies that help them move forward. Beyond collaboration is the idea of creating a social business. A social business is one in which people (employees) are at the heart of everything the business does and the tools provided by the business allow employees to get more done. For a more detailed discussion about what social business is and why, for now, it's potentially failing to deliver on its promise, I recommend reading the first resource listed below.

So how should or could collaboration be defined? One of the first issues is trying to identify which tools are and which tools aren't, collaborative. For example a lot of people will say that instant messaging, email, and web conferencing tools aren't collaboration technologies. People will argue that these are communication tools and for the most part they're great at what they do. Naturally you could argue that email and instant messaging tools are becoming more collaborative, especially where they integrate with tools like SharePoint 2010 or where they allow individuals to share content with each other.These tools definitely have a part to play in the collaborative process, but many would argue it's a limited role.

One of the other problems with trying to define collaboration is that it will mean different things to different people. I could be said to be collaborating with someone if I was to write an article with them. Someone else might say they're collaborating by using a tool like Dropbox or GoogleDocs to upload a document and then allow other people to edit it. Collaboration will also mean different things dependent on the size of the organisation an individual works for.

For example, in a small organisation collaboration might mean a few individuals using a tool like Yammer or Confluence to work more effectively with their colleagues by having a tool that allows them to create and share content easily. Whereas in a larger organisation collaboration might mean a project team, department or working group creating a SharePoint site, in which they publish documents, create blogs and wikis, update their status and, for want of a better word, collaborate.

Up to now I've only talked about technology, but, for many, collaboration is about an individual deciding that they want to work with someone else. In fact, search Wikipedia for the term collaboration and you won't find a mention of the word technology. So is collaboration as Michael Sampson puts it a "human behaviour"? Certainly collaboration seems for the most part to be situations where people work together in a particular way towards a common outcome potentially using a collaborative tool to assist them.

When it comes to collaboration context, it would seem, does matter and trying to define what it really means can be hard. But as information professionals it's important to be aware of some of the issues around how we collaborate with each other and the tools that are available. If you're interested in learning more about information sharing, collaboration and how you can approach this subject then the resources listed below should help you do so.

Other resources:

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