Manage what matters — collaboration

Knowledge is personal and it cannot really be managed, though we continue to try. Artifacts of knowledge can be managed and in many cases they can be helpful to others. Learning is the same, I can’t directly transfer my learning to you, but I can try to teach or even train you, based on some good practices. We each have to learn for ourselves, though we can take advantage of the knowledge artifacts passed on by generations of people. It’s also getting easier to take advantage of what other people know as we get more connected online.

My own focus has been on personal knowledge mastery because managing how each of us makes sense seems to be the required foundation of anything resembling organizational knowledge management. The same goes for organizational learning – it cannot even be conceived to exist without individual learning. When it comes to learning and knowledge, we may be going down the wrong path when we try to put these into organizational buckets and manage them.

As Dave Jonassen has said many times:

Every amateur epistemologist knows that knowledge cannot be managed. Education has always assumed that knowledge can be transferred and that we can carefully control the process through education. That is a grand illusion.

We need people in organizations who can learn and gain knowledge themselves, though not necessarily by themselves. At the organizational level we need people who can work together or in concert on solving problems. Organizations should focus their efforts on helping people work together. It’s about work, or performance, not learning and not knowledge. “How can we help you work?” should be the mantra of all workplace support departments.

Learning and becoming knowledge-able are now basic requirements for every worker. These are basic requirements for life, as much as food and water. We don’t manage what or how our employees eat and we don’t need to manage their knowledge or learning. We can make it easier for them to learn and share knowledge though, just like putting in a cafeteria or a water fountain. Workers need support and tools to develop these personal processes but the organization should stay out of the business of knowledge and learning and instead focus on collaboration.

As Stephen Downes wrote on one of my previous posts:

collaboration means ‘working together’. That’s why you see it in market economies. markets are based on quantity and mass.

cooperation means ’sharing’. That’s why you see it in networks. In networks, the nature of the connection is important; it is not simply about quantity and mass …

You and I are in a network – but we do not collaborate (we do not align ourselves to the same goal, subscribe to the same vision statement, etc), we *cooperate*

In a networked society, we are re-learning how to co-operate as we take our networks with us, wherever we go. Once inside an organization it is necessary to focus our group work on a task or mission and that requires collaboration. Collaboration is what organizations should primarily focus on. Successful collaborative efforts are the measure of a successful organization. All of that focus and energy on managing knowledge and learning is wasted because it can’t really be managed anyway.

20 Responses to “Manage what matters — collaboration”

  1. Ed Shepherd


    You bring up some great points. As a school administrator, I have often see teachers attempt to manage ‘what’ students learn more often than ‘how’ they learn. Of course there are basics that need to be learned, but by helping students develop metacognition teachers can increase the likelihood that students will take more ownership in the learning process. I feel that teachers may not always be aware of how they learn themselves, so therefore it is often hard for them to share in the process.

    At the school I am currently working at, we work hard to create an environment that is collaborative and based on information-sharing. By doing so our teachers have become more open to new information and ideas from their peers. This has helped our teachers become more willing to create a classrooom designed to help students explore data in a way that helps them piece it together in ways so they (the students) learn from their experiences together.

  2. Tony Karrer

    Harold – great post. It’s curious to me that you land on collaboration as being the thing that matters. Yes it matters, but cooperation matters as well and the broader being knowledge-able is what it’s really about right?

  3. Harold Jarche

    Definitely co-operation and being knowledge-able matter to each and every one of us, as contributing members of society. For organizations, getting things done is what really matters, and that in my mind requires collaboration, which should be the primary focus of the organization.

  4. Tom Haskins

    Harold: I’m delighted you’ve raised this issue again. Since this debate between “Cooperation” and “Collaboration began, I’ve been experiencing a lot valuable Cooperation through my blog. The people who are helping me out and advancing what I’m working on are only connected to me online.

    What I’ve noticed is how these people have a Concept of what I’m striving to accomplish and a Commitment to assist me and my process. Their comments for me, quotes of me, critiques of my assertions and summations of my process — all seem Collaborative to me. Their inputs are not mentioned in passing. They are said to work with me and with what I’m sorting out. They are taking the time to think their contributions through and write them up in detail, which goes far beyond Cooperation without Commitment to or Concept of my endeavor. The quantity and quality of my learning, refining, rethinking and progressing has been remarkable. I suspect these “Committed Collaborators with a Concept” are benefiting in similar ways themselves from our Co-explorations, even though our formal relationship is merely Cooperative.

  5. Mark Berthelemy

    Hi Harold,

    You say: “We need people in organizations who can learn and gain knowledge themselves…” and “Learning and becoming knowledge-able are now basic requirements for every worker.”

    I agree with you entirely, but most larger organisations are dealing with a vast majority of workers who do not have that motivation or ability to learn for themselves.

    It’s an ability that I have only discovered for myself within the past 10 years.

    So, how do you work with organisations where collaboration, cooperation and learning are not as central as we’d like?

  6. Harold Jarche

    Mark, for the most part, I don’t work with those kinds of organizations because they don’t hire me. However, I do work with some that need to move in the direction of more collaboration, or they will face extinction from more networked and agile competitors. The public sector is probably the biggest challenge because many managers and executives perceive that they have no competition. As an external consultant, I can avoid clients who do not want to improve or change. I know that it is much more difficult for internal staff.

  7. Virginia Yonkers

    I think you (and others that are working in groups) make the assumption that everyone has the same concept of “knowledge”. Often this is the explicit, individual knowledge that most in the West identify as being important. However, what you are now addressing is the “group knowledge” that is held by individuals. But what about the “knowledge” that is held by the group? If you take an individual with their unique knowledge set, will the group still be able to function? If so, how, if each individual contributes to the organizational knowledge? Doesn’t some knowledge belong to the group irrespective of the individuals that make up the group?

    In addition, what I am finding in my research is that collaboration vs. cooperative are affected by resource constraints, temporal constraints, leadership, and environment (including culture, epistemologies, work practices/patterns of activity, and organizational power structures).

  8. Harold Jarche

    Actually, I don’t believe that everyone has the same concept of knowledge. I believe that knowledge, especially implicit knowledge, is individual. We make it explicit through the creation of artifacts. Group “knowledge” is the combination of those artifacts (explicit) as well as the behaviours of its members (implicit).

    The constraints you note on collaboration & cooperation make sense to me, Virginia, and confirm much of what I have observed.

  9. Tony Karrer

    Harold – great discussion.

    “For organizations, getting things done is what really matters, and that in my mind requires collaboration, which should be the primary focus of the organization.”

    There are likely activities that require collaboration, but I think a fair bit of concept work only requires cooperation. In practice, maybe it comes to the same thing – reducing the effort required for collaboration so that it is more like cooperation.

  10. Harold Jarche

    The way I see it, Tony, is that co-operation is something that we all do (or will do) as contributing members of a networked society. Collaboration is more mission and organization specific. I think you’re right in that people who live co-operatively will find it easier to work collaboratively.

  11. James

    I’d say this can pretty much be applied to post-secondary obsession with the LMS. Stop trying to wall the garden and provide the tools for self-discovery. Good post.

  12. alexanderhayes

    Hi Harold,

    A year on and I’m still managing to survive as a consultant. Collaboration is king. Common sense and tenacity is queen.

    Somewhere amongst it all I count on your kind words a year ago that have enabled me to look out over a kingdom 🙂

  13. Harold Jarche

    I’m very glad to hear that business is going well, Alexander. Yes, surviving counts as doing well. It does get a bit easier as time goes on.

  14. Nicole Huett

    A very clean perspective, rather a practical one! Thanks much for sharing all the thoughts and in a concise way. Simple tools and techniques is what we need to allow users to collaborate and effectively. Creating an environment, I liked the cafeteria part especially 🙂 There are many such good examples of simple and effective tools which almost allows easy and effective collaboration withing users having even noticed that it is happening. I am an educationalist and have effectively used a great example that suits this write up, a good collaborative learning tool.

  15. Joe Raimondo

    I use a “3 C” paradigm–thinking of coordination, cooperation, and collaboration as the 3 key dimensions of “managing” creative, generative efforts in service of most things–transactions, learning, any symbolic manipulation really. I borrowed this mostly from Howard Rheingold, whose “New literacy of cooperation” fleshed out this model nicely.


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