What is Collaboration?

If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants

- Issac Newton

By understanding more about collaboration - its forms and uses, we can learn how best to employ and engage in it both for boosting productivity and quality relationships 

Definition of Collaboration

Collaboration is the process of individuals, communities or organisations working together for a purpose that cannot be achieved alone; while enhancing one another’s capacity to achieve it. 


The purpose might be a shared problem, or a common goal. Between individuals, collaboration can begin as close to home as your Heart beat. For organisations, networking, coordination, and cooperation are all steps toward the more involved relationship of collaboration, in which a deeper level of trust is required in order to fully share Risks, responsibilities, resources and rewards.  

Collaboration is a broad concept which can include any area of human activity which includes An interactional space, is mutual and not purely individual (though collaboration can have an impact on individual experience, and visa versa). Included in this breadth for example; parenting can be a collaboration between a couple or members of a family, Crowdfunding is a way to collaborate financially, the 2015 Turner Prize was awarded to an Artistic collaboration, various online community forums exist to Share resources and Minimise waste domestically and industrially, and global standards of health and social care emphasise the importance of Multi agency and Service user collaboration

Different cultures show different ways of collaborating. In very general terms, ‘Western’ society and its influences have been more individualistic than non Western cultures. These tend - arguably, to involve more deeply embedded systems of collaboration.

However, The contemporary influences of wide reaching internet, cultural and economic globalisation, environmental crises and broadening spiritual practice, Western cultures are changing. Systems Must cope with greater degrees of complexity resulting from these trends, and collaboration is becoming more explicitly valued, utilised and enhanced to do so. As a result, traditional and less collaborative models of power, expertise and authority in systems are increasingly challenged. 

For example, in Education it is recognised that where the individual was considered the ‘unit of instruction’ in learning and the focus of research, knowledge is now better thought of as Cultural practice. Increasingly, we have Co-teaching, Learning communities, and Commons based peer production such as alternative higher education courses facilitated by Expertise-sharing volunteers. In work around mental health, Co-counselling and influences such as Democratic psychiatry seek to share power in the therapuetic relationship through greater mutuality, accountability and collaboration. 

As well as working on shared projects and learning in tandem with others, collaborative learning can include what you learn from others, what they learn from you, and how you learn inter-dependently through the mutual process. It involves the social requirements of mutual help seeking and giving, compromising, openness, respect and good communication. It requires recognising the need for – and being open to learning from others, as well as recognising their need to learn from you, and being open to how this may occur. For Couples, compromise and accommodation works closely with collaboration. It also means knowing how and when to collaborate, and being able to move between individual and shared learning and working. 

Can collaboration be counter-productive?

Not enough good collaboration can be unproductive as well as disunifying. But there is also negative potential in collaboration, in which both the need for, and the conditions of cohesion can inadvertently encourage individuals to give up their Mindful agency and full Sense making capacities. These pitfalls are well described by Group think theory, and can happen in a variety of ways.

A group’s dependency on its sense of coherence and certainty on where it is going, can mean that it needs to minimise the awareness of conflict and doubt by sidelining alternative viewpoints at all stages of decision making. This can occur through Stereotyping, labelling, marginalising individuals, and rationalising the warnings of dissenters or Disconfirming data. All of which help retain a temporary illusion of stability and satefy - or even Invulnerability. A group can also use consensus to Rationalise mistakes and prevent its learning. See Belonging, for a further exploration of some related dynamics. 

Marginalising a groups’ Outliers can inadvertently divide and polarise perspectives by forcing minority experience and opinion into the shadows. Victims of marginalisation censor themselves, and their silence is taken for agreement. This may keep a sense of coherence for a period of time, but dissent can eventually break forth (either passively or overtly) into a much greater and harder to deal with, conflict. Another consequence of this illusion of unanimity is making assumptions about who else is - or is not, dealing with a problem or task. This can lead to vital activities being missed or duplicated - which is not only inefficient, but sometimes Dangerous too

Am I Collaborative?

Do you enjoy working with others? Maybe just in ones and twos? Or perhaps you love the energy of larger group working? Do you know what you ‘bring to the table’ in a group context? What have others commented about this? What is a collaboration you’re proud to have been a part of, and what did it achieve? What kind of collaborations in history or present society do you admire or aspire to? Why?

Barriers to Collaboration

We’ve outlined some of the most important aspects of good collaboration - and the things that can get in the way.

There can be many reasons for why a collaboration which could happen doesn’t, and why those that do can fail. Collaborations are hard work to form and to sustain. The specifics may be different depending on the scale of the group or organisation, but the dynamics can be similar. 

•    Shared purpose: Foundational factors. An effective collaboration needs to begin with a mutual purpose which the individuals involved come together around. These shared goal(s) must remain the ultimate priority, over and above individual incentives; and the commitment to the tough work of learning from one another must be mutual. You can think of this as like the base of a tree: the roots extend from where the original seed is planted, like the individuals of a collaboration Find their place and their roles in relation to the original motivation or ‘greater good’. The roots converge in one endeavour as goals become mutual. And roles grow with the collaborative effort itself. These roots of strong shared purpose anchor and reinforce any shared activities or work developed together. 

•    Shared understanding, mutual respect and clear roles: Process factors. The purpose; like the growing trunk of a tree, must then develop through positive, meaningful and regular contact between individuals into a shared ‘language’ or understanding which becomes the Frame of reference of what the collaboration is trying to achieve. Without a collective aim this will not be possible. Specific communication problems such as Semantic barriers, defensive rationalisation of mistakes or The threat of colluding with stereotypes can obstruct collaborating. As a result of understanding and sharing the aims, clear roles must be assigned to individuals based on who they are (including an appreciation of differences in personality and style) and what they want to bring to the table (including an appreciation of each individual’s access to necessary resources). Without this clarity and respect for the different parts that one another play, misunderstandings, unequal roles, replication and disheartening inefficiency may ensue. Ideally, all members of the collaboration need to understand and value one another’s role equally: without this, intolerance, resentment or frustration could ruin its chances of success. 

•    Shared hard work: Personal factors. If the development of shared goals, understanding and mutually valued roles-stages of the process are not fully realised, it will be difficult to do the ongoing hard work of communicating meaningfully and inclusively, following up on problem solving, making necessary compromises and tolerating one another’s differences with patience. It’s more likely that some individuals will end up taking on responsibility and putting in the effort, creating resentment. It will also increase the prospect of self-interested competition between members, and fragmentation - as branches which veer off from the tree without being balanced by the shared goals or frame of reference for the collaboration. All things which can undermine the trust and clarity needed for a collaboration to succeed. 

Becoming more collaborative

The good news is that there are ways to help unblock some of these barriers to good collaboration. There are various strategies we have put together further along, that you might find helpful as you progress through your learning journey. We call them ‘pathways’. 

Your Learning Journal

Something highly recommended as you’re travelling this journey, is keeping a journal. Whether a paper journal, a scrapbook or a virtual space to record your thoughts and experiences chronologically; this provides a crucial reflective tool for you to clarify thoughts through creative expression, prompt and remind yourself of important learning, and track your progress as you look back on it. This will be a space for recording your responses to questions or pathways you encounter here, but it may also include much of your own ad-libbing and anything else that is helpful to you.

You’ll notice pointers along the way to encourage and remind on the use of your journal; but this can take whatever form you like. 


Go Deeper

Next Step

Why is Collaboration Important?