Seven shades of collaboration

When we mention the word “collaboration” different people think of different things.

Perhaps collaboration to you means working with an external third party?  Perhaps it means working on a document simultaneously with somebody from another department?  Or perhaps it means working successfully in an online workspace? It could even mean just exchanging ideas with a colleague by email.

The trouble with collaboration as a term is that it is quite woolly and high-level. In fact, it’s so woolly that it’s the kind of word that might appear in a company’s value statements, or as part of a new company strategy.  Because it is so general, companies often struggle to apply it, particularly when they focus on “collaboration” without really thinking what it is and what they are trying to achieve. There are also several barriers which can really limit collaboration from being a success. 

What do you mean by collaboration? 

Most people have a general idea of what collaboration is. It tends to be about a different individuals, teams or parties working together in some manner to reach a specified goal. In that definition “together” is an important word – collaboration heavily implies a sense of partnership and equal contribution, although leadership and management may be needed to direct collaborative efforts to their desired conclusion.

But “working together” is still very generalised. When you actually start to unpack it, collaboration comes in many different types and forms, and looking at collaboration through a more specific lens can help teams to think about their specific activities and therefore optimise how they collaborate. If you want to discuss about how to make collaboration happen, or what you want to achieve, or what tools you want to use, it helps to be far more granular about the types of collaboration involved. 

Do in-house legal teams collaborate? 

Collaboration is important for in-house legal teams who need to work effectively with the rest of their organisation, and who also have a lot to contribute more widely in helping to mitigate and prevent risk. In-house teams are of course regularly collaborating with other lawyers too. 

Seven shades of collaboration

Here’s seven “typical” shades of collaboration. Note that many of these are overlapping so it is quite possible actually if you’re collaborating on a project, you may be doing several of these at the same time. And arguably some of these you may not even consider collaboration at all. Take these categories as a starting point to help your thinking rather than a deeply researched framework.

1. Teams and projects 

Team collaboration is usually defined by people with discrete, well-defined roles and which may already partly define their role in collaborative activity. Team collaboration may involve a project team, or perhaps an operational team. It may be people who know each other, or who have been thrust together from disparate disciplines. Teams can be very high performing or completely dysfunctional, or somewhere in between. They can be dispersed or co-located. Teams tend to be  tightly defined, but sometimes there is also a wider team involved and where there is effectively a core team and then a wider network of characters who come in and out. In the past couple of years there has been lots of tools dedicated to team collaboration including Slack and Microsoft Teams.

2. Communication and co-ordination

Sometimes collaborative activity is quite operational; it may be more to do with everyday communication and co-ordination of activities across a team. When people talk about the need for real-time collaboration, sometimes it can be just about co-ordinating activities in a timely manner. Often the tools you need for communication and co-ordination can be the same you might use for perhaps deeper collaboration, but it’s worth considering what tools you really need. If you’re just co-ordinating activities you may not necessarily need the latest amazing whiteboard tool, for example.

3. Document-based collaboration

Often when people talk about collaboration, or perhaps say then need a collaborative workspace, all they really want is access to a common document library. This may not be a true form of collaboration, but is included here for completeness.

Working together on a document is different. Multiple people or even parties collaborating to work on a common document is a common type of collaboration where having the right tools can help. Sometimes document collaboration is more structured and can be a review process, but other times it can be even done in real time. Using SharePoint Online or G-Suite tools allows multiple people to edit in real-time together which is very powerful. 

Version control, the ultimate enemy of document collaboration, is also key. Everything from work spaces with version control built into the functionality to  just good naming conventions for files can help avoid issues.  

4. Communities of Practice of Interest

Communities of Practice (CoP) or Communities of Interest (CoI) generally offer a looser, less-defined forum for collaboration with a wider group of people focused on a common area of expertise or interest making contributions. CoPs are common in the world of professional services and also knowledge-intensive sectors such as pharmaceuticals, engineering and technology. 

Online tools associated with communities tend to be variations on formats centred around discussion threads. Collaboration may also need to be facilitated within a community, with perhaps the community coming together to solve an identified problem or work on a specific initiative. 

5. Ideation and innovation

Ideation and the management of ideas, and innovation, are a specific set of collaborative techniques and methodologies that tend to focus on outputs that are new and different to what’s gone before. There are usually set processes and rules that help to guide the best results; these range from workshops to ideation platforms where ideas can be submitted, voted on, commented and then brought to fruition. 

The best results tend to be when ideation and innovation are tied to a specific brief or challenge which ultimately helps to focus efforts. Ideation processes in particular also work best when there is more collaboration involved, with room for ideas to be expanded, developed, discussed and modified.

6. External collaboration

External collaboration across more than one organisation tends to be different to internal collaboration because of the parameters around confidentiality and IP, the idea of a team from one organisation collaborating with a different team and so on. Many larger scale projects tend to end up as collaborations, even when you hire an external party to help you achieve something, it’s usually a collaboration in a sense. Sometimes if two very different functions within one organisation collaborate on something it can feel like an external collaboration.

External collaboration can be extremely rewarding, particularly with the collision of different perspectives, experiences and people. 

7. Meetings and workshops

Meetings are a form of collaboration, although can be unliked – mainly due to having too many of them. In fact, a successful meeting – where time is not wasted and a successful outcome achieved – is really something all can benefit from. 
Most meetings where people go through a more focused methodology to explore things more deeply and come up with a useful output which has life beyond the use of the meeting are branded as workshops. Of course, there are also many different types of meetings; those that are face to face and those that are virtual tend to have different rules and techniques.

Conclusion: Unpacking collaboration

There are other types of collaboration not mentioned in this article and there are different ways to view collaboration, for example in the different structures or legal agreements that govern collaboration, particularly with external parties. Even when considering projects, it can be argued different methodologies such as agile are all collaboration types. If deeply thought about it, there are probably seventy shades of collaboration rather than seven. 

Whatever way collaboration is viewed and categorised, the main point is to unpack collaboration into more granular types and accompanying use cases in order to think how to collaborate and what can be done better to be more effective. Do you collaborate? Yes. How do you collaborate? Like this and this and this and this and this. Only when you consider collaboration with that finer lens can you start to do it better.  

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