Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

4 August 2015

Teasing apart cooperation and collaboration

Clark @ 8:36 AM

There have been a couple of recent proposals about the relative role of cooperation and collaboration, and I’m trying to make sense of them.  Here are a couple of different approaches, and my first take at teasing them apart.

Dion Hinchcliffe of Adjuvi tweeted a diagram about different types of working together that shows his take. He has coordination as a subsidiary to cooperation and on to collaboration.  So coordination is when we know what needs to be done, but we can’t do it alone. Cooperation is when we’re doing things that need to have a contribution from each of us, and requires some integration. And collaboration is when we’re working together with a goal but not clear how we’ll get there.  I think what’s core here is how well defined the task is and how much we contribute.

In the meantime, Harold Jarche, my ITA colleague, as a different take.  He sees collaboration as working together to achieve a goal that’s for the organization, whereas cooperation goes beyond.  Cooperation is where we participate and assist one another for our own goals.  It’s contribution that’s uncoupled from any sense of requirement, and is freely given.  I see here the discussion is more about our motives; why are we engaged.

With those two different takes, I see them as different ways of carving up the activities. My initial reaction is closer to Dion’s; I’ve always seen cooperation as willingness to assist when asked, or to provide pointers. To me collaboration is higher; it’s willing to not just provide assistance in clearly defined ways such as pointers to relevant work, answering questions, etc, but to actively roll up sleeves and pitch in.  (Coordination is, to me I guess, a subset of cooperation.) With collaboration I’ve got a vested interest in the outcome, and am willing to help frame the question, do independent research, iterate, and persist to achieve the outcome.

I see the issue of motivation or goal as a different thing. I can cooperate in a company-directed manner, as expected, but I also can (and do) cooperate in a broader sense; when people ask for help (my principles are simple: talk ideas for free; help someone personally for dinner/drinks; if someone’s making a quid  I get a cut), I will try to assist (with the Least Assistance Principle in mind).  I can also collaborate on mutual goals (whether ITA projects or client work), but then I can also collaborate on things that have no immediate outcome except to improve the industry as a whole (*cough* Serious eLearning Manifesto *cough*).

So I see two independent dimensions: one on the effort invested, just responding to need or actively contributing; and the other on the motivation, whether for a structured goal or for the greater good.

Now I have no belief that either of them will necessarily agree with my take, but I’d like to reconcile these interpretations for the overall understanding (or at least my own!).  That’s my first take, feedback welcome!


  1. Interesting timing for this discussion. When we presented on collaborative writing at the SMSociety conference, we had a slide that talked about our interpretation of the difference between cooperation and collaboration. We talked about how we had all experience with cooperative writing academic papers, where each person takes their ‘turn’ to edit the document – but how, Google Docs has changed our process into what we call ‘swarm’ writing, which produces are truly collaborative experience. With swarm writing, there is no longer a who goes first or who goes next type mentality – each person can jump in at any time and make edits, and if two or more people are in at the same time that is OK too. The technology has allowed us the ability to work in this truly collaborative way. It has changed how we collaborate.

    Comment by Rebecca — 8 August 2015 @ 8:21 PM

  2. That’s a very interesting observation, Rebecca. Indeed, I’ve similarly done that, and it’s quite the creative experience. And while ‘technically’ possible without tech, tech really does break down a different proximity barrier in space than not being in the same room, it makes it possible to break down the physical barrier of fitting around the whiteboard/paper! But hmm, cooperation can be more asynchronous, and collaboration is more synchronous? Interesting distinction…worth pondering. Thanks for the contribution!

    Comment by Clark — 10 August 2015 @ 7:52 AM

  3. These are important concepts for learning designers too. Thanks Clark for sharing your thoughts on this.
    I like Pierre Dillenbourg’s explanation: “In cooperation, partners split the work, solve sub-tasks individually and then assemble the partial results into the final output. In collaboration, partners do the work ‘together’.”
    I also agree with Olga Kozar’s definition: “Cooperation can be achieved if all participants do their assigned parts separately and bring their results to the table; collaboration, in contrast, implies direct interaction among individuals to produce a product and involves negotiations, discussions, and accommodating others’ perspectives.”
    In this excellent article https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/file/index/docid/190240/filename/Dillenbourg-Pierre-1999.pdf, Pierre Dillenbourg says: “Collaborative learning is not a method because of the low predictability of specific types of interactions. […] It’s a situation in which particular forms of interaction among people are expected to occur, which would trigger learning mechanisms, but there is no guarantee that the expected interactions will actually occur. Hence the general concern is to develop ways to increase the probability that some types of interaction occur.”
    Collaboration is much harder in synchronous environments because it requires much more depth, so it certainly benefits from asynchronous interactions because people can step away and are given the time to think through their contributions.
    I wrote a blog post about designing for collaboration versus designing for cooperation – if you’re interested: http://dynamind-elearning.com/2014/10/are-you-designing-for-cooperation-or-collaboration/ (which includes the links to the definitions mentioned above)

    Comment by Anouk Janssens-Bevernage — 11 August 2015 @ 2:25 AM

  4. Anouk, I like your post, particularly your (and Pierre’s) distinctions for learning design. Yes, collaboration is a powerful learning tool, but hard to design. Thanks for the contribution!

    Comment by Clark — 11 August 2015 @ 7:45 AM

  5. […] Quinn recently asked, as have many others, the difference between collaboration and cooperation, and why it is […]

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