1. A little about semantics
The Collins Dictionary defines the terms as follows:
COLLABORATE: (intransitive) verb, often followed by “on”, “with”, etc. To work with another or others on a joint project.
From the low Latin collabōrāre, from Latin cum = together + labōrāre = to work.
COOPERATE: (intransitive) verb, to work or act together. To be of assistance or be willing to assist.
From low Latin cooperārī = to work with, combine, from Latin operārī = to work
From a purely semantic point of view, the two concepts largely overlap: they both represent a methodology for collaborative work (many people interacting to achieve a common goal). In spite of this, they are significantly different:
– As far as collaboration is concerned, all participants work together to achieve the goal. The resources and responsibilities are pooled together.
– As far as cooperation is concerned, the work to achieve the goal is split between the participants, each being solely responsible for completing the part they have been assigned. The resources and responsibilities are therefore divided.
Thus, depending on the adopted method of work, the work tools will be significantly different. On the one hand, cooperative processes require organizational tools (planning, monitoring tasks, creation of complex workflow, etc.). On the other hand, collaborative processes call for tools to monitor the work that is being done by other participants (monitoring revisions, annotations, validations, etc.)
2. Web 2.0 and the dawn of participatory software
With the rapid development of the so-called 2.0 web, applications have taken a collaborative or at least a participatory turn. It has become so easy for anyone to contribute to joint projects (online encyclopedia, blog, etc.), but these changes have been slow to penetrate the world of business.
Nevertheless, since the early 2000s, the development of SAAS solutions has enabled all participants to connect to centralized databases, and has hence facilitated the sharing and exchange of information that is the basis of collaborative work.
Moreover, certain types of software have been designed to manage more and more complex workflows, thereby meeting the growing needs for cooperation.
3. Collaborative work is first and foremost communicating with others
In the early 2000s, offices were stripped of their walls and the open-space became the norm. The aim was to bring teams closer together to help them communicate more easily and to increase their productivity. The idea was to limit the endless email exchanges and the tedious time-consuming task of reconciling file versions. Unfortunately, this need has not really been met by applications, which have not been able to integrate tools to work “together” properly. Even though some do allow you to work “at the same time”, you still have to resort to the phone (or a videoconference) for collaborative work to be carried through successfully.
4. Future collaborative arrangements
With globalization, collaborative exchanges have encountered new difficulties mainly owing to the time difference.
Indeed, it has become very difficult to work at precisely the same time and you often find yourself looking at work done by another person with no details or explanations (unless you try to fully document everything, which would be tedious).
Without being able to trace back at any time over the intellectual process that has produced a result, participants find themselves in a cooperative rather than a collaborative system.
The challenge for future applications will be to allow each participant to become fully involved in projects by being placed at the center of the problem rather than on the periphery.
To conclude, computer software often mixes up the concept of cooperation with the concept of collaboration, therefore overlooking one or the other.
It is therefore essential — when attempting to express one’s needs — to differentiate between the tools associated with each of these two perspectives in order to meet every objective.