Cooperating or collaborating?

In a comment yesterday, Stephen Downes, proposed that cooperation was better suited for complexity and collaboration fit better with complicated situations. Harold Jarche's initial concept drew from Shawn Callahan's post last December for Anecdote that used the Cynefin framework to differentiate between uses of coordination, cooperation and collaboration. My dictionary gives cooperation and collaboration two slightly different inflections to the idea of "working together", the exact title of Harold Jarche's post. The denotation is practically synonymous.

I mean two very different things by "cooperation" and "collaboration". These meanings make sense of cooperation fitting with market responses to complicated situations and collaboration arising in network responses to complex situations:

Cooperation connotes concessions of our own selfish aims while going along with another's agenda. We cooperate (or not) when someone else wants our agreement, permission, support or accommodation. Cooperation involves a reversal of our winning at their expense, taking advantage of their situation or parlaying their neediness in our favor. We switch to backing off, backing down, or giving in to their requests in order to cooperate with what others need or want from us. We are deploying a lose/win strategy in the chart of relational grammars.

Collaboration connotes the co-generation of new accomplishments, outputs and results. We collaborate (or not) when someone wants to pick our brain, get our input or come up with some ideas to help them. Collaboration involves a reversal of our merely cooperating, going along with their agenda or accommodating their needs. We switch to sharing responsibility for getting something done, solving a problem to our mutual satisfaction or making a difference we'll both benefit from. We are deploying a win/win strategy in the chart of relational grammars.

I also mean very different things by market and network responses as I detailed in yesterday's post: Reading situational responses. here's some further elaboration of the connection between networks and complexity that markets fall short of:

Markets structure mostly unilateral relationships between enterprises and their customers. The customers purchase and use what is sold to them. Networks structure bi-lateral relationships with their customers who contribute timely innovations, generate better buzz than any paid advertising, and expose flaws in service, product reliability or brand positioning. The customers make passionate use of the digitized, "free self-expression" context to collaborate with enterprises to make them more successful.

Markets keep rival enterprises disconnected to avoid appearances of collusion, price fixing, monopoly controls and other anti-trust violations. Rivals may concede to the advances made their competitors advertising, product upgrades and value proposition innovations. They do not help them achieve those aims. Networks connect rivals in order to share resources and mutually benefit from industry wide advancements. Rivals collaborate to adopt new technology, comply with new standards, cultivate new talent for the entire industry.
In another comment that followed up on Stephen's proposed change, Murl wrote the following:
I think it is the right way around because it does depend on a definition of collaboration. From my research I have noted the high degree of complexity of collaboration that operates in both the physical and virtual worlds as well as being very high risk driven towards an uncertain goal. That is, those who collaborate are highly vulnerable and exposed. On the other hand, participation in a cooperative venture is negotiated and agreed around a known goal. I would argue that collaboration is the highest order of working together and highly complex.
This adds two more dimensions to the distinction between cooperation and collaboration that help us sort out this issue. The situation is merely complicated when cooperating toward an established goal with little risk exposure/vulnerability. The situation becomes extremely complex when the goal is opened ended and the participants are vulnerable to those uncertainties amidst their collaboration.

All these considerations reinforce how Shawn and Harold applied the Cynefin framework to coordination, cooperation and collaboration modes of working together.


  1. So how are you differentiating between complicated and complex?

  2. Thanks for the question, Charles. Here's a few examples, then a conceptual differentiation:

    1. A classroom with several special ed students with different needs would be complicated for a single teacher. That classroom with aids, peer support systems, activity centers, group projects would be complex for everyone engaged in the collaborative outcomes..

    2. A market that served retail customers buying recorded music with varied tastes, playback equipment and exposure to new artists would be complex. A network that allowed those customers to download digitized tracks of their choosing, record their own music, mash-up prerecorded tunes into music videos, and load customized playlists onto their mp3 players would be complex.

    3. A professional conference with a full schedule of concurrent presentations and breakout sessions would be complicated. An unconference would be complex where participants offered to personally run possible meetings, panel sessions and presentations, and attendees then voted on which offerings they wanted to attend. This would emerge as an improvised schedule no one planned in advance but satisfied the attendees more than pre-planned conferences.

    In short, complicated situations maintain the paradigm of delivering content, value, results to others as the recipients become more diverse. Complex situations switch to collaborative dynamics where the content, value or results gets co-created, crowdsourced, produced as spinoffs from peer 2 peer engagements, or filled in by social networks.

  3. Thanks for the clarification. Depending on your audience, you may run into a definition problem. That is, for those who take a complexity science approach to learning and organization, complicated refers to the notion that the action of the whole is equal to the sum of its parts, while complex means that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. A clock or car is complicated while living interaction is complex. From this perspective, 1 and 2 would be complex while 3 would likely be, especially with respect to breakout sessions.

  4. Thanks for applying a complexity science frame of reference to this. It helps me clarify how to characterize the distinctions I'm making between market and network models. In looking through some of your writings, I got to wondering how the power law idea might apply to this as well. Here's some other dimensions to the complicated/complex distinction I'm considering:

    Complicated --- Complex

    scale limited --- scale free
    branched tree structure --- nodes and linkage structure
    single sourced --- distributed sources
    labor intensive, costly --- altruistic contributions, free labor
    confined to incremental growth --- capable of exponential growth

  5. Power laws and "scale free" go hand in hand, and Barab├ísi in his book "Linked" does a good job at noting how power laws are at play in many complex networks. However, he notes that to his surprise, “The most intriguing result of our Web-mapping project was the complete absence of democracy, fairness, and egalitarian values on the Web" (p. 56). For me, that finding would be at odds with your distinction between costly and altruistic.

    On branched tree structure, I'm guessing that you mean some sort of hierarchical structure. Rather than looking at these as dichotomies, I imagine that they lie on a continuum. Even on the Web, there are hubs in the networks.

    In complexity science, "complicated" things don't grow. In looking at evolution, what is seen (at least by some, such as Crutchfield & van Nimwegen (1999), "The evolutionary unfolding of complexity") is incremental growth over time with punctuations of exponential growth.

  6. Thanks for all of this Charles, Especially the red flag on my use of "altruism". You've got me realizing that the complex side of the distinction is going to defy most simple characterizations.
    I'll give more thought to using the distinction between static structure and growing dynamism that you've given me -- as the central argument.


  7. Hi Tom,

    I must disagree with Tom and Stephen's use of cooperation vs. collaboration as well..

    Web 2.0 platforms are based on sharing one's expression, i.e. cooperation, but this creates 'weak links' and hence we need third party platforms.

    But we can also freely engage to produce common value together, i.e. browsers, operating systems, universal encyclopedias, arduino circuit boards and one day, open source cars and fridges. This create strong links and communities creating their own infrastructures.

    In other words, collaboration arises out of cooperation as a higher form, and collaboration includes cooperation, but not the other way around, making collaboration holarchically more encompassing.


  8. Thanks for this added clarification, Michel. The added idea that collaboration involves creating a new infrastructure helps me a lot. It relocates the debate over cooperation from the context of the existing networks.