In networks, cooperation trumps collaboration

In networks, cooperation trumps collaboration. Collaboration happens around some kind of plan or structure, while cooperation presumes the freedom of individuals to join and participate. Cooperation is a driver of creativity. Stephen Downes commented here on the differences:

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*

We are only beginning to realize how we can use networks as our primary form of living and working. David Ronfeldt has developed the TIMN framework to explain this shift – Tribal; Institutional; Markets; Networks. The TIMN framework shows how we have evolved as a civilization. Ronfeldt sees the network form not as a mere modifier of previous forms, but a form in itself that can address issues that the three other forms could not. This point is very important when it comes to implementing social business (a network mode) within corporations (institutional + market modes). Real network models are new modes, not modifications of the old ones, and cooperation is how work gets done. Some examples:

Wirearchy: a dynamic multi-way flow of power and authority based on information, knowledge, trust and credibility, enabled by interconnected people and technology.

Heterarchies are networks of elements in which each element shares the same “horizontal” position of power and authority, each playing a theoretically equal role [wikipedia].

Chaordic refers to a system of governance that blends characteristics of chaos and order. The term was coined by Dee Hock the founder and former CEO of the VISA credit card association [wikipedia].

Combine the TIMN perspective with the Cynefin framework, and I created this table, looking at how work gets done:

Shifting our emphasis from collaboration, which still is required to get some work done, to cooperation, in order to thrive in a networked enterprise, means reassessing some of our assumptions and work practices. For instance:

The lessening importance of teamwork, versus exploring outside the organization may change our perceptions about being a “team player”.

Detailed roles and job descriptions are inadequate for work at the edge.

You cannot train people to be social.

Collaboration is only part of working in networks. Cooperation is also necessary, but it’s much less controllable than our institutions, hierarchies and HR practices would like to admit.


46 Responses to “In networks, cooperation trumps collaboration”

  1. Luis Alberola

    Very useful distinction. I think in very sophisticated consultancies, you already have collaboration and cooperation. And I would argue that the frame needed to allow real cooperation is one of the key endeavours corporations need to undertake
    Beyond freedom to participate, my experience is that cooperation also presumes à shares culture and similar intellectual and knowledge levels. While if, given the time, coopération can take place between any two pensons, within an organisation and understand time contraints, culture and knowledge seem to be needed before coopération can take place

  2. Ian Thorpe

    Very thought provoking. I like the distinctions you draw between the roles of social networks, communities and teams and the mapping with Cynefin model of complexity. A question and a comment:
    1. Do you see a trend in social social business/knowledge management towards an increased emphasis on cooperation over collaboration?
    2. In the table, I’m not convinced that “markets” maps to complicated and “networks” to complex. Markets (and similar natural processes such as evolution) are in fact uncoordinated ways of dealing with complexity, but ones in which there isn’t any conscious direction, but rather the sum of individual actions by individual actors in the market arrives at a solution guided by the famous “invisible hand”. For me both markets and networks are different but related means of dealing with complexity both based on the idea that the knowledge needed is distributed within the system and that response needs to be adaptive over time rather than centrally directed i.e. there is no “boss”. I wonder if it might be better to put “community” under complicated rather than “market”.

  3. Judy Payne

    Great post, Harold. The distinction between collaboration and co-operation has been troubling me since I read and

    I’m now revising my beliefs 🙂 Some of what I’ve been calling ‘collaboration’ for several years is ‘co-operation’. Probably.

    A question: do you think people can be good at both?

    • Harold Jarche

      I think there are many people who are good at both. One issue though is what behaviours are encouraged in the workplace. If workers only collaborate they will miss out on serendipitous connections made through cooperation. As a result, innovation may actually decrease. This is what happens when you slavishly adhere to process improvement models like Sick Stigma and ignore how humans relate in networks and communities.

  4. Dave Ferguson

    “Slavish Sick Stigma.”

    At GE, where I worked for a long time, Six Sigma became the established religion. You can use it, like many tools, to work more efficiently, more effectively, or both — but there’s no guarantee.

    The mythology of Six Sigma always included the canonical story about GE Aircraft Engines, and how many miles an engine moved inside the plant before Six Sigma. While possibly true, this outlier of a story was not easily transferred to my component’s main work (business-to-business electronic commerce).

    When people worked at collecting data, probing for possible causes, testing hypotheses, and the like, that was a good thing. That was primarily at the Work Team level in your diagram, which is fine, I think: lots of day-to-day stuff happens in work teams. And sometimes they’d slide into the Community of Practice realm, as well.

    When people took a project they’d pretty much finished and backed Six Sigma lingo into it — so they could check off “completed Six Sigma project — they were way out on the efficient end of the scale, with little on the effective end.

  5. Vaughan Merlyn

    Excellent and helpful distinction!

    Over the last few years, on the back of social networking and all the “2.0” hype, the term ‘collaboration’ was everywhere – often without and sense of the specific purpose or outcomes to be gained. In other words, per your graphic, while the term ‘collaboration’ was being used, there was very little, if any, structure or defined goals. In practice, people more often meant ‘cooperation’.

  6. Ian Thorpe

    Harold – thanks for the link on T+I+M+N societies. I will study up! I still think the market approach (or perhaps more accurately the evolutionary approach) has a lot of life and potential left in it to deal with complexity as it has long been nature’s way of dealing with it (thinking here for example of evolutionary biology), despite its limitations and the long timeframes involved. I wonder if one of the reasons people have a difficulty with markets is because of the lack of a conscious “intelligence” guiding or influencing their direction – as well as the fact that while often producing good results they can often produce spectacularly bad ones (something that probably applies to all of these models).

    I agree however that networked societies are an important development whose potential is not yet fully exploited or understood – and wondering a lot on how this affects the work I’m doing working in a large “institution” (the UN) focussing on mainly on “co-ordination”.

  7. Jose Baldaia (@Jabaldaia)

    Thank you for this provocative article!
    I think collaboration also presumes a degree of freedom because to collaborate is a volunteer act and for me collaboration is a form of cooperation.
    Dillenbourg et al. make a distinction between cooperation and collaboration. They define cooperative work as”… accomplished by the division of labor among participants, as an activity where each person is responsible for a portion of the problem solving…” They define collaboration as “…mutual engagement of participants in a coordinated effort to solve the problem together”
    Peter Gloor said “Collaborative Innovation Network is a cyberteam of self-motivated people with a collective vision, enabled by the Web to collaborate in achieving a common goal by sharing ideas, information, and work.”
    I think when we have an environment where we can share ideas we leverage creativity as it happens when we collaborate.
    To me cooperation is what we have when a group of consultants give their contribution as being part of a sum of contributions (disciplines or different work approaches) but they don’t share positive and negative issues. It is like to redesign a village after a big storm in separate rooms.

    • Harold Jarche

      Are we not cooperating in order to better understand something here, Jose? In my mind, this is cooperation and what I try to describe in the post.

  8. Jose Baldaia (@Jabaldaia)

    Harold, we are for sure. What I think is that, more than cooperate we could be collaborating to achieve a common language. I think the important thing is to understand that here we may not be aligned with the same objective and so we cooperate.
    Thank you!

  9. EphraimJF

    I wanted to disagree with your Cynefin/TIMN chart, but couldn’t. It looks great and I think you’ve defined collaboration (complicated) and cooperation (complex) accurately.

    Collaboration is often done poorly, but it is something you can control, plan for and implement, – it’s just hard to do well.

    Cooperation is something you can try to enable, but you can’t really control it as easily, at least not within the context of social business.

    In the deluge of “social business” marketing over the past two years I’ve seen the term “collaboration” thrown around haphazardly and with little clarity. I’ve been contemplating a way to clarify the definition and your examination of “cooperation” has hit the nail on the head.

    COLLABORATION: 2 or more people working together towards shared goals.

    COOPERATION: People or organizations working together to achieve a result that will benefit all of them.

    People use the term “social collaboration” to refer to large scale discussion forums and sharing within companies. For example people would refer to this situation as “social collaboration”: when someone posts a question about sales collateral and an un-known colleague from across the globe answers that question.

    That’s not actually collaboration because the two people have different goals, but they both benefit. It is cooperation.

    Thanks for this great article and thought effort Harold. Now it’s time to inject this perspective into the mainstream discussions of enterprise social software to help people think more clearly about the goals of their efforts.

  10. sarah farrugia

    I am very interested in this. I have been using the term collaboration positively until @euan said he disliked the word, so this begins to help me understand the nuances…these details alter understanding and clarify – it’s the natural way of learning and being that I am interested in – although, instinctively I feel that co-operation is a cooler word than collaboration – it is more everyday…I could co-operate in a more distant way than I would collaborate…so I need to consider this definition further

    • Harold Jarche

      I think collaboration is a positive behaviour, and of course necessary to get work done. Cooperation, on the other hand, is less constrained by objectives & deadlines, and a necessary behaviour to remain open to serendipity and encourage experimentation.

  11. jay cross

    Harold, I’ll admit to being confused by your chart. To cooperate is to work together for a common purpose; to collaborate is to work together to produce something. I don’t understand why one couldn’t either cooperate or collaborate in a complicated situation or a complex one. What am I missing here?

    • Harold Jarche

      I don’t define cooperation as working together around a common purpose and neither does Stephen Downes in his quote.

      Jérôme Delacroix provides a similar perspective on “cooperation” as the suitable term for what we do in networks. Jérôme explains why his site is called Cooperatique and not Collaboratique – collaboration happens around some kind of plan or structure, while cooperation presumes the freedom of individuals to join and participate. He also says that cooperation, not collaboration, is a driver of creativity. Collaboration is focused on an objective, while cooperation is being a good citizen (sharing and helping out with no extrinsic reward). I think cooperation is an enabler of serendipity.

  12. Pascal Venier

    A fascinating and extremely thought provoking piece. I was wondering whether
    looking at Cyntia Kuntz’s Confluence Sensemaking Framework might not also be pertinent. She co-authored “The New Dynamics of Strategy: sense making in a complex and complicated world” with Dave Snowden in 2003 and has developed a framework which has evolved from the Cynefin framework and much of her thinking is centered on the opposition between meshwork and hierarchy. I do not seem to be able to post the series of links I had in mind in a comment on your blog but will email them to you.

    • Harold Jarche

      Thanks for all the links, Pascal. I hope they help readers who are looking for more sources. It’s the fragmented nature of blogs that not all of my blog posts on this topic are directly connected to each other.

  13. Karen Jeannette

    The collaboration-cooperation figure hits the nail on the head from where I sit in my support role for a community of practice. I’ve experienced that fostering cooperative opportunities is beginning to spark and inspire more fruitful and satisfying collaborative opportunities.

    In the past few years, my community of practice has struggled a bit with how to be a community of practice. The focus, initially, was predominately focused on collaborative outputs the community of practice would produce (historically, outputs have been my organizations strength/language). However, from the beginning, even though we (CoP members) thought we knew each other well enough from annual meetings, etc., we could never get to producing the collaborative works. I think part of this is because we weren’t fostering cooperative learning together frequently enough through the community of practice.

    Now, after several years of practicing cooperative learning as a primary focus of the CoP (via Webinar and mailing list discussions), we are starting to see some coalescence between the “collaborative” and the “cooperative” bubbling up. I’m sure there are many reason why this is happening, but I think one reason is that we have invoked trust from participants by learning together more frequently, and we are more fluidly realizing (or perhaps re-realizing) common visions, needs, and each person’s individual strengths. This seems to prime us for collaborative work, in that it is much easier to discover the roles and ways people can fit and work together (some of which you could never predict) around common needs and goals when you first learn together in a cooperative nature. I think it also makes people feel more comfortable that when collaborative opportunities do arise they will be able to work collaboratively on a task, rather than held onto a committee of “x” duration!

    Thanks for keeping the collaboration-cooperative discussion moving and continually improving the figures. They are great frameworks to refer to for my work!

  14. Dan

    Harold – excellent post – someone ref’d it on another forum. I regret it took me so long to find it. All the best.

  15. Jerome MAYBON

    Thank you Harold for framing our mind around this topic.

    I do agree you are making sense, but I disagree on the words meaning and usage and suggest we “cooperate” to create a better wording.

    Cooperate means Operating together, Act Jointly.
    Collaborate means Working together, Work Jointly.
    the Collaboration formula is Connect * Care * Challenge * Commit, and requires a high level of development from the members of an organisation.

    More the organisations evolve from Tribes to Networks, more we need to develop Collaborative capabilities. But Cooperation is sufficient for Tribes.

    To articulate the concept of sharing thru a network or a networked organisation, I propose “ProLaboration” meaning working for the all, or or Cosharing meaning Sharing together.

    Any feedback?


    • Harold

      These terms have worked for me for several years. I will stick with them.

      Ça marche en français aussi:

      << Au final, la coopération suppose la libre participation d’individus à une oeuvre commune, parce qu’ils y trouvent un intérêt individuel. Elle se distingue surtout par le fait que le coopérant est donc moteur, initiateur, apporteur de créativité. Elle met en avant, beaucoup plus que la collaboration, les notions de réseau interpersonnel et d’auto-organisation. >>

  16. Bob Crozier

    I only recently came across this article. Gave me pause for thought. In an ESN setting, we both collaborate and cooperate so sit in the communities of practice. The question remains for me then is to get the serendipitous cooperation whilst also adding value by streamlining the collaboration of getting work done.
    Great article.

  17. Scott Gould

    I’m very late to this article – but thank you.

    The dictionary definition of co-operation does trump collaboration as being more open, more serendipitous, more social.

    Unfortunately, cooperate as a verb is quite hierarchical – “why won’t you cooperate with me?”


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