Clarifying the word “collaboration” to reduce confusion and conflict

May 23, 2012

Confusion and misunderstandings around “collaboration”

The word “collaboration”  is creating lots of confusion these days. In several recent client projects, I’ve seen firsthand to what extent different interpretations of “collaboration” have triggered serious misunderstandings and even internal conflict. I can’t count the number of meetings I’ve been in where people use the word collaboration to describe quite different things.

It is important to clarify the type of collaboration you are talking about. Although the different types are not black and white, there are fundamental differences. Why is it important to clarify?

  • It influences the coherence of your whole digital workplace, in particular your entry point strategy.
  • It will reduce conflict among digital teams and bring understanding of how different pieces fit together to serve the people.
  • To some extent, it impacts the roles and scopes of members of the digital teams. It partially answers the question of “who is in charge of what”.

Team collaboration – probably the oldest sense of “collaboration”

This refers to designated people working together on a project with deliverables and a timeline. This has long been part of what organizations do. Today, in many cases, senior management have taken a new interest in intranets because they now include collaboration as well as information. This type of collaboration gets their attention because they see it as “the way work gets done”.

Communities of practice for support functions – long established in most organizations

Most large organizations have long-established communities of practice for their support functions: finance, IT, communication and HR. Finance is almost always the leader because companies need to consolidate figures across the organization. IT and  Communication sometimes struggle depending on how decentralized the company is. HR has a different challenge because the central function and the country functions need to work hard to clarify their complementary scopes.

These communities are “obligatory” in that if you have a job in finance or in communication, you are automatically part of the relevant group. Over the years, I’ve seen many global intranets built on the backbone of functional communities of practice. These communities are often strong allies for your change facilitation initiatives.

New for many organizations: social communities and collaboration

Informal networking around the water cooler and on business trips has long existed but, by definition, has geographical limitations. Online tools that enable people across organizations to discover each other, answer questions, discuss and so on, even if they never  meet physically. This is  bringing a new dimension of “collaboration” to organizations.

Communities around topics of interest are being created. They are voluntary. People join, participate, leave as they wish. Leaders emerge. There are no pre-defined deliverables. These communities are usually closely tied to social networking in that they may live inside the social networking platform and do a lot of their communication and collaboration using social tools.

The digital workplace where it comes together

I published my first diagram of the Digital Workplace in February 2011: “Snapshot of the Digital Workplace“. The purpose was to provide people with a visual way to communicate the digital workplace concept to management.

Over a year later in February 2012 I published a second version of the diagram. “Digital Workplace in Brief: 5 Fundamentals” where I emphasized the overlapping of the different dimensions and scopes.

A number of organizations now use these diagrams to explain how their “pieces” of the digital workplace fit together. They also use them to illustrate their entry point strategies. They help people talk about single or multiple entry point strategies. They also make it easier to define what is on the start page (as per the second diagram on the February 2011 version.

What does “collaboration” mean inside your organization?









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Jane McConnell

You’re right, Samuel. The negative connotation of “collaboration” bothers some. I’ve come across that more than once.

I workshopped just today with a client who decided to call their collaborative space “communities”. They felt senior management would understand that better and they are about to propose a global navigation bar to their very senior managers.

However, I workshopped with another global client a couple of years ago who refused to use the word “communities” because they felt their was a religious/sect connotation.

Not easy in a global company – the words are very important and need to be tested and defined carefully.

Samuel Driessen

Good post, Jane. It’s important to get everybody on the same page when talking about collaboration. Even more, because in some countries like Holland (and I think France as well) ‘collaboration’ has a negative connotation due to World War 2 (as in: working with the enemy)… :-)