How do you define collaboration?

How do you define collaboration?

How exactly do you define collaboration?

Go on, think about it. I’ll wait.

Depending on your background, department, role, industry, etc., you’re going to have a unique take on what that word means. There may be some common denominators—“together” or “teamwork” or “technology,” as examples—but there are a lot of angles to take when it comes to collaborating with others.

The trouble with a word like “collaboration,” particularly in the business sense, is that it means different things depending on who you’re talking to. Analysts are going to give you one definition, the end user another. And yes, even this very blog will discuss it in yet other ways.

I’ve been chasing that word for nearly a quarter-century, and let me tell you: the target never stops moving.

Regardless of how you answered the question I’ve posed here today, here are some things that I’ve learned in over two decades of trying to find my own answer:

Most people don’t care about the technology.

In today’s hyper-connected and increasingly flexible workplace, it’s become increasingly difficult if not impossible to separate the idea of collaboration from technology. While there will always be time for face-to-face meetings, collaboration today happens in online meetings, team workspaces, file sharing services, web conferences and mobile apps.

I get fired up about collaboration technology. And business leaders, purchasing decision-makers and obviously the IT department are all justifiably concerned about how collaboration technologies work and integrate with their existing systems and infrastructures.

But guess what: no one else in your organization gives a damn.

They don’t care what it is or how it works, all they want is to get their work done in the most effective way possible. If your collaboration software enables that in an intuitive, unobtrusive and easy-to-learn way, great! They’ll fold it into their workflow.

If it doesn’t provide that value? You can flash all the codecs and endpoints and “-aaS” acronyms in their face that you want. Those tools will end up abandoned for whatever truly works for your employees’ unique needs.

Collaboration is a means to an end.

If you ask the IT professional what “collaboration” is, you’re going to get a very different answer than if you ask the marketer down the hall. One is going to speak in terms of APIs and servers while the other is just concerned with how it makes them more productive. And this is not a problem: vastly different departments all need to collaborate for vastly different reasons.

We should be less concerned with what collaboration is or does and more concerned with what collaboration enables.

For the IT pro, it means better security, enhanced enterprise-wide administration and communication, and better project management. For the marketer, easier communication with vendors and agencies, better cross-departmental alignment and improved data sharing.

Regardless of the metric you’re trying to improve, collaboration can play a key role. Think of it as the means to whatever your specific end goal is, rather than trying to define the phenomenon itself.

People are the heart of collaboration.

Finally, this is the most important thing that we all have to learn about collaboration: all of the technology, best practices, cultural initiatives and methodologies are worthless without the people on the other end.

People are the heart of collaboration. They’re the ones that benefit the most from it. They’re the ones that thrive on it. They’re the ones that suffer when it’s absent, happening ineffectively or not encouraged within your organization. And they should always be the first consideration when making a new technology purchase or cultural initiative.

That’s why I’ve been chasing my own collaboration definition for so long: I love helping people connect. And no matter where the technology takes us—and it’s going to take us to some crazy new places—there will always be a human being to connect with on the other side.


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