What’s the difference between collaboration and cooperation?

forums screen In our course Toward a Literacy of Cooperation we are now somewhere between the first synchronous session about the biology of cooperation and the second about the Evolution of Cooperation.

The group of co-learners is extremely active in our forums (we use the socialmediaclassroom, the “place” in which our esteemed facilitator, Howard Rheingold, also organizes the course wiki, the blogs and social bookmarks. We use Blackboard Collaborate for synchronous sessions).

The forums are for registered students (and we do pay a fee). This makes this experience different from a Massive Online Open Course. However, our proceedings are not secret, so I’ll report on the course here, on this very open blog of mine.

Be warned: my selection is rather arbitrary, as my time and attention span are limited. I just mention two discussion threads. There are many more, but even though the course is still in the early phases, the discussions are very rich and challenging – just looking at the links and references, making a selection, doing some reading and watching for one single discussion thread takes quite some time. But yes, it’s very worthwhile.


Did you ever learn about autoethnography? I did not. Yet, one of the co-learners started a thread about ‘narrative inquiry, autoethnography, personal narrative and collaboration.’ Wikipedia explains:

Autoethnography is a form of self-reflection and writing that explores the researcher’s personal experience and connects this autobiographical story to wider cultural, political, and social meanings and understandings. It differs from ethnography —a qualitative research method in which a researcher uses participant observation and interviews in order to gain a deeper understanding of a group’s culture— in that autoethnography focuses on the writer’s subjective experience rather than, or in interaction with, the beliefs and practices of others. As a form of self-reflective writing, autoethnography is widely used in performance studies and English.

Collaboration or cooperation

Another thread is a discussion about the big picture of cooperation while examining the details. But first of all, what’s the difference between cooperation and collaboration? A learner suggested:

coLABORation – labor, or work synchronously, toward a shared, identical goal. This seems better and more fun to me. I love collaborating (as I understand it).
coOPERATion – operate synchronously toward the same goal, toward similar but individual versions of shared overall goal. More attainable in terms of what’s possible in the world?

Howard’s take on this:

People who have shared interests can cooperate without agreeing on specific goals, but collaboration involves some kind of signalling or communication about what the shared goal is. People know what their interests are without needing to confer with others.

Yet another student:

I think somewhere along my journey through Howard’s work I read: coordination is what it takes to get on the dance floor and actual throw down some funky dance moves (dance solo), cooperation is two people navigating the dance floor together and collaboration is a flash mob of dancers.

This student referred to an interesting book by Peter Corning, Nature’s Magic: Synergy in Evolution and the Fate of Humankind (summary). A quote:

Synergy, “the combined or cooperative effects produced by the relationships among various forces, particles, elements, parts, or individuals in a given context – effects that are not otherwise possible,” is a key driver of biological and human cultural evolution by providing immediately useful packages of benefits.

The participants then started to think about design of communities and about mechanisms and environments which facilitate participation or make it harder. Another quote:

I think communities fall apart when there isn’t a process where people take quick steps to get over whatever fear keeps them out of the process. Making a post, asking a question in chat, writing on the map in the first class like last night… I believe there are a lot of people who are actually more fearful of participation-even those teeny acts.

At this point it became obvious that the discussion in the forum is already looking forward to sessions we’ll have in a few weeks – most notably about the question of how people work together to get things done. And this question is not only about idealistic people working together explicitly to make the world a better place. Students get also inspired by Daniel Pink for instance and his work To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth about Moving Others (it seems the answer is beyond being introvert or extrovert, but being ambivert – understanding your partner’s thinking and creating the best outcomes for both sides.)

But how do we experience our participation in a collaborative community – and maybe more to the point, how do we remember it? One student mentioned a TedTalk by Daniel Kahneman, how our “experiencing selves” and our “remembering selves” perceive happiness differently. This new insight has profound implications for economics, public policy — and our own self-awareness. Other references which were exchanged in the discussion were Thinking Fast and Slow (Kahneman again), and Why Plans Fail: Cognitive Bias, Decision Making, and Your Business by Jim Benson.


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About rolandlegrand

I'm a digital newsroom manager at Mediafin, the publisher of Belgium's leading business newspapers De Tijd and L'Echo. I have a special interest in the intersection of immersive media, business and philosophy.
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