What gives, then?
Let’s assume a contemporary, technology-driven business context, projecting itself onto the digitally-transformed future of work.
Are these synonyms or have different meanings?
If so, is it a difference in kind or degree?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “cooperation” as a noun, meaning “the actions of someone who is being helpful by doing what is wanted or asked for” or “common effort”, and “collaboration” is counted as a synonym, like “partnership”, and “relationship”.
The same dictionary defines “collaboration (collaborate)” as a transitive verb, meaning “to work jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavour”, also counting “cooperation” as a synonym, same as “concert”, “band (together)”, and “conspire”.
So, in general, they’re pretty much synonyms, but let’s move this analysis towards the context mentioned above; slowly though.
Cooperation is an oldie, animals and plants have been at it for aeons, through symbiosis or mutualism: “Lapwings protect other birds from predators; baboons and gazelles work together to sense danger (the former watching, the latter listening and smelling); pelicans fish cooperatively.”
Robert Axelrod, in his seminal work, posited that human cooperation, even between individuals who pursue their self-interest, can indeed emerge without a central authority, provided the actors involved might meet again and the future is valued as sufficiently important relative to the present.
More recently, and under the now en vogue systems and complexity perspectives, as auto-organization proceeds towards higher levels of complexity, cooperative linkages form between components, providing structured stability to the resulting assemblies, that become fitter to their internal environment, and thus more successful at whatever competition may arise for bringing in unattached or less strongly attached components.
This idea, ranging from the self-less, bond-acquiring world of atoms, chemistry’s autocatalytic cycles, through the goal-oriented teleological world of life, is also meant to apply to all sorts of areas of human life, where people share information, devise cooperative strategies, and coordinate efforts to enhance future performance in a competing environment at large.
Collaboration, defined as a process in which a group of two or more people work together to achieve a goal, is a bit younger.
In her 1981 Texas University Report, Shirley Hord states that although the words cooperation and collaboration are often used interchangeably, she also claims that, as descriptions of operational processes between either individuals or organizations, they are distinctly different.
There’s the premise that collaboration is not possible without cooperation, but not the inverse since collaboration requires a great deal more effort to yield benefit, and cooperation needs less because it doesn’t require shared goals, although also benefits from clear expectations.
In sum: “In cooperation, activities are mutually agreeable but not necessarily for mutual benefit. A metaphor may help: dating is a cooperative venture, while marriage is a collaborative one.”
That was the beginning of times for collaboration, popping out of cooperation mogway’s back: “…the paucity of research on collaboration is astounding. The literature is filled with case studies and observations… (describing) conditions, designs, and dreams. Very few even attempt to analyze their operations (p. 333).”
Then, it exploded.
Concerning education, Olga Kozar highlights the difference between cooperative and collaborative work in general, seeing the former as a task that is accomplished by dividing it among participants, and the latter as a mutual engagement in a coordinated effort to solve the problem together, the key difference being that cooperation is more focused on just creating an end product, while collaboration adds the requirement of participants to share in the process of knowledge creation.
In the military, one of the six principles of Mission Command is to create a shared understanding, crucial to mobilize all the diverse capabilities necessary to achieve success in operations. Although it requires collaborative and cooperative efforts to focus those capabilities toward a common goal, the emphasis is placed on collaboration and a distinction is made between coordination and collaboration, being through collaboration that commanders establish human connections to create a shared understanding:
“Through collaboration and dialogue, participants share information and perspectives, question assumptions, and exchange ideas to help create and maintain shared understanding, resolve potential misunderstandings, and assess the progress of operations.”
In software development, particularly in the Agile approach — a mindset now mainstream in all areas of business, from product development through workplace culture itself –, collaboration is also a critical factor in effective communication and coordination, positioning itself beyond mere cooperation.
Scott Duncan, in his examination of the Agile Manifesto’s values and principles, says many people working in teams believe they are collaborating when they are probably just cooperating, and then he goes on to establish the difference and explain why cooperation falls short.
As such, to cooperate means to operate together, while to collaborate means to work together. The first can function with limited interaction, where one can essentially focus on what must be accomplished individually, but the second involves deliberate sharing of work, and responsibility for it, structuring tasks so people work closely with one another.
It’s funny because one of the Fathers of the Agile Church wrote a book titled “Agile Software Development: The Cooperative Game” where he starts with the idea of “communication as touching into shared experience” and proposes a fruitful way to think about software development as a cooperative game of invention and communication:
“The game is cooperative because the people on the team help each other to reach the goal. The measure of their quality as a team is how well they cooperate and communicate during the game. This measure is used because it affects how well they reach the goal.”
It’s fortunate that Jim Highsmith, also one of the Fathers, made amends by writing a book titled “Adaptive Software Development: A Collaborative Approach to Managing Complex Systems.”, setting the record straight at the core of its Adaptive Development Life Cycle, that comprises three phases, denominated “Speculate”, “Collaborate”, and “Learn”. His depiction of the mentioned second phase also puts forward the notion of active sharing, contrasting it only with communication, taken as passive, by merely transferring information, and then he adds:
“Creative collaboration thrives on diversity, rich relationships, unfettered information flow, and good leadership. At the feature-team level, creative collaboration is manifested as interpersonal dynamics and collegiality. Culture and structure drive it at the organizational level.”
It’s a good thing, but is he describing an intrinsic property of collaboration?
According to Gretchen Anderson, in her recent book “Mastering Collaboration”, it seems cooperation is unlike collaboration because the former it’s meant for dealing with the easier stuff, “in that it describes work that is well understood and can be structured, sequenced, and monitored in a more straightforward way.”
On the other hand, what sets collaboration apart is its suitability for tackling the hard stuff. In this sense, collaboration requires what she coined as “fuzzy frontend” thinking, able to tame complexity and overcome ambiguity, where either the solution or the way to get to it isn’t obvious nor planned, calling for alignment of purpose and guidance toward smart decisions, mediated by the right brokering of politics towards employee engagement.
What is curious though, taking into account what we’ve been seeing so far, is her view that collaboration can also happen when people work independently on a common problem, provided the work is shared early and often to get feedback and test out ideas.
At this point, one might be tempted to see the difference between cooperation and collaboration as a matter of degree, i.e., cooperation is required to make collaboration possible, but collaboration goes further in bringing benefits that cooperation alone cannot.
In this light, cooperation seems more individualistic — contrasting with a more collectivistic stance by collaboration — , giving more weight to self-interested, individual goals, and not so much to the collective, global ones.
One of the hallmarks of collaboration is a closer-knit interaction to foster shared understanding, a sort of collective memory, that might even be called “collective intelligence”, where everyone is poking into everyone else’s brain.
That’s the case in education, where new insights are brought in by learned discussion and exchange of multiple, alternate perspectives, leading to a better and more fruitful learning experience than just by doing it alone.
But what’s the ultimate interest at stake here, individual or collective?
Shared understanding is also crucial for successful military operations, but there’s at least a communion of interests there, of the individual and the collective.
The same can be said of the other examples discussed, that communion of interests, individual and collective, is already present in cooperation, not a feature of collaboration per se, hence no appreciable difference between Cockburns’s cooperative game and Highsmith’s collaborative approach.
The most salient difference seems to be methodological, regarding the degree of knowledge sharing involved between the members of a given group set to attain some common goal.
Under that perspective, collaboration posits itself as more instrumental to the success in goal achievement, member satisfaction and engagement. Of course, we’d always prefer to be let in on things, but that may not always be the best way to succeed at our endeavours, as there’s also no consolation for being on the inside of a wreck.
Besides, depending on many factors, such sharing requirement may turn out to be an impairment, if there are too many people involved. Jack Martin Leith points to research that mentions some stringent limits to group size on making such close sharing work out.
In fact, cooperation can even be viewed as an extended form of collaboration, reversing the complementarity we’ve been assuming so far. Harold Jarche sees cooperation as voluntary sharing with no expectation of reciprocation, relegating collaboration to the more mundane directed work towards a common goal, and adds:
“As work gets more complex and value less tangible, extending collaboration toward cooperation, across boundaries and silos, will ensure that workers stay connected and adaptable to changing conditions. Collaboration is best when the business objectives are clear, but cooperation will ensure organizational resilience as markets get smarter and faster.”
Well then, let me venture to say it was probably the wave of innovation in computer-mediated communication technology, with the introduction of the Web 2.0 media platforms, that picked the word “collaboration” and made it stick, although cooperation might have been a better fit, taking into account the nature and motivation of what people were doing with it:
“They do all these things in collaboration, pooling knowledge and constructing content that they share with each other, which is subsequently remixed, redistributed and reconsumed. This burgeoning phenomenon suggests that users are gratified in significant ways by the ability to play an active role in generating content, rather than only passively consuming that which is created for them by others.”
What a conundrum.
Maybe we can just settle with Paul Grice kinda essentialist view:
“Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged. One might label this the COOPERATIVE PRINCIPLE.”
And do as he also said — my paraphrasing: be informative, but not too much; cut the bullshit and don’t speak of what you don’t know anything about; be relevant in an orderly, brief fashion, avoiding obscurity and ambiguity.
So, when someone comes to you saying you need to start collaborating to get to the next level, you might just ask: care to discuss it a bit first?
Or, just throw in this quote:
“It is proper to every gathering
that the gatherers assemble to
coordinate their efforts to the
sheltering; only when they have
gathered together with that end
in view do they begin to gather.”
— Martin Heidegger, Logos
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 Axelrod, R. M. (1984). The evolution of cooperation. New York: Basic Books.
 Mobus G.E., Kalton M.C. (2015). Principles of systems science. New York: Springer.
 The authors prefer this term to the one more commonly used: “self-organization”.
 Hord, M. Shirley (1981). “WORKING TOGETHER: COOPERATION OR COLLABORATION?”. R&D Report №3123. Research and Development Center for Teacher Education — The University of Texas: Austin, Texas.
 Houston, W. R. (1979). Collaboration — See ‘treason,’ In G. E. Hall, S. M. Hord, and G. Brown (Eds.), Exploring issues in teacher education: Questions for future research. Research and Development Center for Teacher Education — The University of Texas: Austin, Texas. Cited in Shirley (1981).
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 Highsmith, James A. (2013). Adaptive Software Development: A Collaborative Approach to Managing Complex Systems. Addison-Wesley: Upper Saddle River, NJ.
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 Mulgan, G. (2018). Big Mind: How collective intelligence can change our world. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ.
 Leith, Jack Martin (n.d.). “The maximum group size for a proper conversation is four people, or five at a push”. http://jackmartinleith.com/four-people-maximum-for-proper-conversation/ (accessed Dec. 10, 2019).
 Jarche, Harold (2019). “working collaboratively and learning cooperatively”. https://jarche.com/2019/04/working-collaboratively-and-learning-cooperatively/ (accessed Dec. 14, 2019).
 Harrison, T. M. & Barthel, B. (2009). “Wielding new media in Web 2.0: exploring the history of engagement with the collaborative construction of media products”. new media & society. SAGE Publications. Vol11(1&2): 155–178.
 Grice, H.P. (1975). “Logic and Conversation” in Cole, P. & Morgan, J. (Eds.). Syntax and Semantics 3: speech arts. Academic Press: New York.