Social Collaboration, COLLABORATION - or what?

By Alexander Klier By Jeffrey Backus Jul 2, 2015
Social Collaboration, COLLABORATION - or what?

Translation of the Original Article by Alexander Klier

Definitions can be a tricky and confusing thing. Like the game in the picture that seems confusing at first. However, conceptual definitions help to understand the situation or circumstances described and to clarify them. This we want to do with the term social collaboration below.
Picture: David McSpadden – Cooperation Game on flickr. Use under the terms of the Creative Commons - Attribution (BY).

"In my view the Collaboration mentioned in the MITSloan report should be understood as Cooperation, not Collaboration in its true sense. Since I honestly cannot see any clear line regarding the use of these two terms, I would appreciate a brief explanation from you.“ This interesting note reached us in an email, questioning how exactly we use the English term Collaboration. Or if we possibly mistranslated the term we used in our blogpost „Warum (echte) Social Collaboration auch nachhaltig ist“. The term appears there in the MIT Sloane Management Review (Together with the Boston Consulting Group and the Global Compact of the United Nations) with the title „Joining Forces. Collaboration and Leadership for Sustainability“. For me personally definitional issues are an important source of knowledge, because for this you have to constrict the equivalent terms and to distinguish them from others. This way you can define where they apply, what they mean, and where they do not apply. Because: In order to recognize or draw a line you have to have crossed it (theoretically). That is at least what Hegel said. A definition of the term Social Collaboration is especially important to us - and not self-evident – since we put it in relation to corporate collaboration platforms, and we apply the German short form “Kollaboration” to work processes. What, if not cooperation, is really social? So why, in other words, a "social collaboration" in the area of work? The term social collaboration is intended to express something very specific especially in terms of cooperation. Therefore, it is definitely worth it to be clarified in more detail. This is what the remainder of this Blog will be about.

A direct translation

"In a value-free sense collaboration is today [...] used as a synonym for cooperation [...] In this sense, a collaboration or cooperation is a strong form of cooperation.” (Translated from the German Wikipedia) It is not wrong to start with a direct translation and then producing a relationship to the word origin (Etymology). A direct translation first brings us the realization that the term Kollaboration translates to Collaboration :-). That sounds different from cooperation, but is at least similar to that of the literal meaning. Kollaboration was taken from the French collaboration (= working together). It stems back to the Latin collabōrāre (from: con- ‚with‘; and laborare- ,work’ = work with). Since the Second World War, it is used colloquially, in turn connoted by borrowing from French, often in the negative sense of "traitorous cooperation". Social, as the second part of the term, is also borrowed from the French and originated, as well as collaboration, from Latin. Socialis is a derivation of the term "socius" and means something like "participatory, related, begotten". The Duden lists four meanings for the adjective “Social”. One of them reads: “Concerning Society and particularly its economic and political structure”. The structure of collaboration – this is exactly what the term Social Collaboration is all about. However: We are interested in the use of the concrete realization of cooperation in the corporate context.

Social Collaboration – a Pleonasm?

„Pleonasm is the use of more words or parts of words than is necessary for clear expression“(Wikipedia) Is the term „Social Collaboration“ a pleonasm? I don’t think so. Particularly not, if the two components of the term are used in different ways. Certainly not if it serves to describe various contexts – as we do in practice. In this sense the first –admitting a bit rough - suggestion for a direct translation would be a “participating” or a “joint cooperation”. The difference, which is to be expressed, is that you can organize cooperation differently in a business context. The existing "mainstream" model so far is a Tayloristic factory organization. This model is valid far into the service sector. The gag in this model is that of a “singularized” or better a (hierarchical) “arranged collaboration”, if you wanted to put it into a somewhat (different) term. Basically, all employees are here considered as a-personal individualists, that have to be convinced to work with all sorts of tricks (e.g. by extrinsic incentives or harsh punishment), and have to be steered or controlled by the hierarchical management. Otherwise, there will be chaos. These people consequently have no special interest in the work process or the products outside of work. To us the movie „Augenhöhe – für eine neue Arbeitswelt“(Eye level - for a new working world") shows very nicely how a Social Collaboration works or is to be organized. The interesting thing here is mainly that it can be organized analogue. Embedding / sharing courtesy of the core team. Further information and especially discussions on its own website from Augenhöhe are here. A cooperation as a dedicated "cooperation of actions of two or more" persons "in the division of labor in order to achieve a common goal" (Wikipedia) would - to continue the metaphor - hand down the classical Tayloristic forms of cooperation. Here, in quasi-exceptional situations, where joint action is considered useful, employees still appear as a-personal-individuals. Even classic project work represents such a form of cooperation, because the different competencies of the group - as well as the task - are assigned. A collaboration on the other hand means that the employees are part of a community, are visible as individuals (in their profiles and activities), participate as such in the collaborative creation, and design process. They are thus not only involved - in terms of groups - in the development of all parts of the results, but are also equipped with personal competencies (rights). So they decide - for example in the group process itself - how the skills of the other involved people are best distributed, to perform the tasks. Typically, the exact contributions to the result are then no longer traceable in detail. But, in the end, they represent more than just the sum of the individual contributions. Therefore, from our standpoint, Social Collaboration means an economically more efficient form of cooperation, where people – in the shape of communities - involve themselves entirely in the process. Collaboration is very easily organized with Social Software or collaboration platforms. However, it is not necessarily bound to it.

Radical or: Back to the roots

"Homo sapiens has adapted to act cooperatively in groups and think in an unprecedented scale; and in fact, the most impressive cognitive performance of people [...] are not products of individuals acting alone, but of individuals acting together.“ (Michael Tomasello) If it were just a conceptual difference, then you could say at the latest at this point: So what? But it is not only a sophistical quibble, but a more powerful stance when it comes to understanding of work processes and especially the real designing of these. Our experience in Beas encourages us repeatedly. This is especially true for the fact that although technical possibilities for a collaboration on corporate platforms are necessary conditions, but they are not sufficient for a Social Collaboration to actually take place. This will only arise if the Social - in the sense of participating in common people, with everything that belongs to personhood - is again the premise of cooperation, for example, in the autonomous communities, which one joins voluntarily. Otherwise it will not work. Interestingly, you do not even have to enable staff separately - because people as individuals are natural "team players". They were mainly - in a business context - just de-educated within the structures of a misunderstood concept of man. In this respect, they rather have to be empowered – through clear rules – to live and experience this again. In this sense, a social collaboration is indeed a return to the roots of human cooperation, but by a radically different form of cooperation. Radical is here also understood in the etymological sense of the word (= Latin: radix - root). We can return to what distinguished people in their evolutionary development and has produced individuals - in terms of work organization -with a true social collaboration. (This can be nicely gleaned in the small book “Why we cooperate” by Michael Tomasello, which we are happy to recommend. The quote is from page 13 of that book.)

Have we now translated correctly?

"Particularly far advanced is the idea of cooperation in the new organizational structure of the corporate network.“ (Fraunhofer Institut, pg. 5) That depends – like so many other things. For one, in the mentioned document or the MITSloan study there is no direct indication that the term "collaboration" used should only be understood in a certain meaning. Basically, a (strong) cooperation beyond corporate boundaries would also be a “correct” translation. That leaves one to interpret what is described and how this description is to be closer conceptualized. I think we are quite correct here with the translation in terms of a collaboration. The MIT study does not only emphasize cooperation in the context of a network, but also that it relates to different stakeholders who have different interests. Above all, however, that cooperation must have repercussions on the operational working structure and the core processes. This however - at least to our understanding – can only succeed if there is a genuine collaboration. Because only here all (relevant persons and groups) are involved again in all steps of the process. As part of our article we emphasize, that it requires the appropriate technical prerequisites to implement this. In turn, we see the prerequisites fulfilled in or with collaboration platforms. The fact that the quality of internal collaboration is a measure of how well the network can function not only technically, but also in content to the outside, insofar reflects our often-made experience. We happily pass these on with our articles.