''Teamwork'' could almost be a viable synonym for collaboration, but it's not quite that simple. Teamwork involves working together to get something done. The effort could be entirely physical, or the task could be entirely routine. Collaboration requires another element: Thinking. Basically, collaborating with colleagues means putting your heads together to find the best possible way to meet a goal. You might even stop there, providing the solution to other colleagues to make it happen.
Transforming Work into Mission
Gartner research analysts add another dimension to the definition of collaboration by saying it involves "nonroutine cognitive" tasks, according to the University of California, Berkeley. If a task is invariable and repetitive, it does not require thinking and can therefore be done through teamwork -- it does not require collaboration. The U.S. Department of State adds yet another dimension by adding the concept of "meaningful mission," recognizing that two or more people collaborating are doing so because they see value in the activity.
Voluntary and Equal
Collaboration is done voluntarily. You might be assigned to a project or task that would be best met through collaboration, but to truly collaborate, your involvement must be through active engagement, not forced interaction. True collaboration also puts all participants on equal footing, regardless of title. Each person in a collaborative relationship has a valid opinion and an equal voice. Participants are interdependent, and whatever hierarchical reporting structure might separate them from an organizational standpoint has no bearing on the activity.
Equality among coworkers creates an atmosphere of trust so participants can speak up when they have ideas without the worry of not being taken seriously. Open discussions drive the group toward fulfilling their mission. Effective communication techniques drive open discussions. A technique such as active listening shows that participants value one another's opinion. Coworkers can paraphrase ideas to help clarify what each speaker is trying to say. Probing can help the group explore ideas being generated. Pausing is also a key aspect of meaningful discussion -- it shows there is value to taking time to think about what has been said.
The atmosphere of trust allows participants to debate. One or more participants might even play the devil's advocate to explore the strength of conclusions being drawn. Disagreement is recognized as healthy and necessary without resulting in emotional conflict. In the end, advocacy for a specific solution or group of solutions drives the group toward a decision even if a consensus can't be reached.
A careers content writer, Debra Kraft is a former English teacher whose 25-plus year corporate career includes training and mentoring. She holds a senior management position with a global automotive supplier and is a senior member of the American Society for Quality. Her areas of expertise include quality auditing, corporate compliance, Lean, ERP and IT business analysis.