Collaboration is simply working with, together


The word “collaboration” is so heavily over-used and over-hyped it’s becoming meaningless. People refer to all social software within a company as “collaboration,” and this causes confusion. Vendors get away with saying whatever they want because they’re not saying anything at all and companies end up failing in their “collaboration” initiatives.

Via ThoughtFarmer's Social Intranet Blog.

Point taken about the hype, but its also possible to hype the hype. Lets step back a little, because if you look at the etymology of the words that are being thrown around here - collaboration, coaction, cooperation, etc - they all share a common latin prefix, usually meaning 'with, together'. With collaboration in particular, the rest of the word's meaning comes from 'labor'.

Personally, I think that 'with, together' is meaningful enough. In fact, some flexibility is desirable, so that people can determine for themselves what exactly working with or together means in their organisational context. In some situations working together may be team-based and task-orientated, but this is not the only domain of collaboration - e.g. learning in an organisation can be collaborative too.

Incidentally, Clay Shirky said this about social software:

Let me offer a definition of social software, because it's a term that's still fairly amorphous. My definition is fairly simple: It's software that supports group interaction. I also want to emphasize, although that's a fairly simple definition, how radical that pattern is. The Internet supports lots of communications patterns, principally point-to-point and two-way, one-to-many outbound, and many-to-many two-way. (Emphasis added)

In this respect, social software inside the enterprise ('Enterprise 2.0') has made collaboration richer by allowing us to create platforms that mix up different patterns of working with or together rather than arbitrary tools that support only one or two styles of collaboration. This - I believe - creates the potential for them to be more effective than the last generation of 'groupware'. But collaboration technology initiatives may still fail - when that happens my predisposition is to lean towards socio-technical thinking which points to differences in the organisational situations where technology is being introduced, not because of the way we define it.

BTW for a historical overview of terms used to describe collaboration and social software, see Tracing the Evolution of Social Software.

UPDATE: Jack Vinson also adds to the discussion.