In the business world, the words “collaboration” and “cooperation” are commonly used interchangeably, without regard to their unique meanings. Look at any job description, and you’re sure to see both words carelessly scattered throughout. The confusion surrounding collaboration vs. cooperation makes them seem like nothing but meaningless buzzwords. Perhaps if we all cooperate—and even collaborate—we can rescue these words from abuse.
It is true that whether you use cooperation or collaboration, you’re generally describing a situation where one person or group works with another. Both words deal with involvement in a task, but they refer to very different ways of engaging with the task.
Cooperation: Assistance or Compliance
Cooperation refers to actions performed to help achieve a goal. Cooperating parties need not share the same goal. For instance, a coworker might ask for information she needs to complete her project. In this case, you don’t have a personal stake in your coworker’s project, but should you provide the requested information, your help enables her to achieve her goal. Here, you actively cooperate by helping your coworker.
You can also use cooperation to indicate compliance toward achieving a goal. When discussing a large project from one department, your CEO might ask for everyone’s cooperation. She’s not asking for everyone’s direct involvement in the project, but she certainly is asking that everyone be open to helping—or at least not hindering—the project’s process. Here, you passively cooperate by not objecting to or raising issues with the project.
Collaboration: Investment and Engagement
While cooperation can occur actively or passively and may not always be driven by a shared goal, collaboration requires active and simultaneous involvement from all parties working toward a singular goal.
For example, if you and your coworker make up the team working on a project, the two of you will likely get together to plan and generate original ideas. You both have a shared goal of completing the project, you both have an equal stake in the project’s success, and you both share the tasks required to complete it. Sure, you may need the cooperation of another employee or department, but in the end, only the two of you—as collaborators—can claim ownership of the project.
Collaborators are all fully on board with a project and the values behind it. Collaborators aren’t limited by the possibility of criticism, as all ideas are shared in order to find the one that best serves the project.
Ultimately, when mulling over collaboration vs. cooperation, you must consider the type of engagement from the parties involved in the task. While cooperation can occur by simply going with the flow, collaboration requires a dedicated investment.