According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) online, the concept of collaboration originated in the 19th century and derives from the Latin term, collaborare, and collaborate, "to work in conjunction with others." Today, the OED defines collaboration as “united labor” or “co-operation” regarding “literary, artistic, or scientific work."

While the initial idea of “labor together” has remained central to most conceptualizations of collaboration, different authors, studies, or disciplines have added components or features to specify the meaning of collaboration. Furthermore, collaboration has been used interchangeably with other terms among disciplines, such as: cooperation, partnership, coalition, coordination, and networking (Huxham & Vangen, 1996; Lewis, 2006). Indeed, the concept of collaboration is widely and rather loosely applied in literature, signifying “everything from simply sharing information/opinions or working jointly, to striving to arrive at win-win outcomes of conflict to a specific means of regarding relational partners in interactions” (Lewis, 2006, p. 200). According to Sullivan (1998), collaboration can be understood as a “dynamic, transforming process of creating a power-sharing partnership…for purposeful attention to needs and problems in order to achieve likely successful outcomes (p. 118). Orchard and colleagues (2012) further note that collaborative practice will often include critical characteristics, such as coordination, cooperation, and decision making.

Collaboration in Communication Studies

Communication scholarships views collaboration as a "phenomenon that is both a structure for and the process of ways in which organizations and communities work to resolve common problems and explore new ideas" (Keyton, Ford, & Smith, 2008, p. 377). According to Lewis (2006), several features have emerged in how communication scholars understand collaboration as a process:
  • the action or doing is promoted
  • a relationship among the participants
  • power and status should be equalized
  • the process is constituted with a beginning, middle, and end
  • the process is emergent, informal, and volitional (Keyton et al., 2008).

Conversely, when viewing collaboration as a structure, scholars have identified categories, as well as communicative and structural characteristics in their conceptualization (Keyton & Stallworth, 2003). Others have theorized that collaborative structures are comparable to systems that have components of interaction that are then embedded in larger systems (e.g., Huxham & Vangen, 2005; Phillips, Lawrence, & Hardy, 2000; Stohl & Walker, 2002).

However, several communication scholars have critiqued current understandings of collaboration in the literature, noting that there is a lack of integration among the various definitions or conceptualizations. For instance, according to Lawrence, Phillips, and Hardy (1999), “although the study of collaboration has examined many aspects of its dynamics, these results remain somewhat diffuse. Divergent theoretical perspectives seem to examine similarly divergent empirical phenomena, such that the results are largely noncumulative” (p. 483). Thus, although the concept of collaboration is threaded throughout the communication discipline (as well as others), publications reveal little integration of the theory, conceptualizations, and/or empirical evidence concerning collaboration (Lewis, 2006, p. 200). Lastly, Keyton and colleagues (2008) critique collaboration studies on the assumed role of communication, explaining how scholars have neglected to examine the emergence of collaboration or communicative practices across differing contexts.

Collaboration in Communication Education and Pedagogy

Scholars in communication education and pedagogy are concerned with learning as a phenomenon. According to Kumpulainen and Kaartinen (2003), who are concerned with peer collaboration, collaboration refers to “a coordinated activity during which participants collectively process and solve problems toward a joint outcome…students working jointly on the same tasks to negotiate shared meanings that may challenge the subjective understandings of the participants or go beyond what they already know individually” (pp. 333-334). Wilczenski and colleagues (2001) defined collaboration as a “dialogue or discussion with emphasis on group process and full participation of group members …include[s] exchanging ideas, giving and receiving help from others, clarifying strategies, resolving conflict, and encouraging others to participate” (pp. 269-270). Based on these two definitions, it seems that scholars in communication education emphasize participation, inclusiveness, and shared outcomes as defining characteristics of collaboration.

Collaboration in Negotiation and Conflict Studies

Communication scholars interested in negotiation and conflict studies tend to look at collaboration as a conflict management style or technique (Miller, 2009; Thomas, 1976). According to Thomas (1976) collaboration refers to a conflict management style in which there is high concern for self and high concern for others involved in a conflict. Meiners and Miller (2004) defined collaboration as the “process by which parties attempt to increase the size of the joint gain without respect to the division of the payoffs” (p. 304). Additionally, Rudawsky and colleagues (1999) define collaboration as “a mutual problem solving orientation where both parties’ interests are taken into account” (p. 173).

Collaboration in Health Communication

Scholars in health communication focus on collaboration within the doctor-patient dyad, as well as the relationship between physicians and other professionals in the discipline. A considerable amount of collaboration research has focused on improving communication between physicians and other professionals, such as nurses, pharmacists, and social workers (Ellingson, 2002).

According to Tschannen (2004) collaboration refers to the process of involving “individuals with various backgrounds and expertise communicating effectively with one another in a non-hierarchical fashion. Together they are able to search for solutions that cannot be determined with an individual’s limited scope of knowledge” (p. 313). Henneman (1995) further defines collaboration as “the joint communicating and decision-making process with the expressed goal of satisfying the patient’s wellness and illness needs while respecting the unique qualities and abilities of each professional” (p. 360). Finally, Akhavain and colleagues (1999) view collaboration as the “ability to combine assertiveness and cooperativeness and to remain true to individual principles while working toward a common goal” (p. 4). Based on these three definitions presented, the scholars in health communication seem to emphasize a balance between autonomy and togetherness as the defining feature of collaboration.

Collaboration in Group and Intraorganizational Studies

In group and intraorganizational studies, communication scholars are interested in the relationships and communicative interactions between people and/or groups of people often within organizations. Madcuff and Netting (2000) view collaboration as “a process in which two or more persons work and play together to achieve some result or create some product in which they are jointly invested and about which they care enough to pool their strengths” (p. 48). Stohl and Walker (2002) define collaboration as “the process of creating and sustaining a negotiated temporary system which spans organizational boundaries involving autonomous stakeholders with varying capabilities including resources, knowledge and expertise and which is directed toward individual goals and mutually accountable and innovative ends” (p. 240).

Collaboration in Interorganizational Studies

In interorganizational studies, communication scholars are concerned with relationships between organizations, which is reflected in their conceptualizations of collaboration. According to Gray (1989), collaboration constitutes “a process through which parties who see different aspects of a problem can constructively explore their differences and search for solutions that go beyond their own limited visions of what is possible” (p. 5). Hardy, Phillips, and Nelson (2003) define collaboration as “a cooperative, interorganizational relationship that is negotiated in an ongoing communicative process and that relies on neither market nor hierarchical mechanisms of control” (p. 323). Finally, Mattessich and Monsey (1992) define interorganizational collaboration as a mutually beneficial and well-defined relationship entered into by two or more organizations to achieve common goals. The relationship includes a commitment to: a definition of mutual relationships and goals; a jointly developed structure and shared responsibility; mutual authority and accountability for success; and sharing of resources and rewards (p. 7).

Common Themes

From reviewing communication literature, there appear to be common themes that have emerged as the defining characteristics of collaboration. Most of the definitions reviewed stress that:
  1. The fundamental nature of collaboration is that of a joint activity in the form of a relational system between two or more entities (people, groups, organizations);
  2. an intentional planning and design process results in mutually defined and shared organizational goals and objectives;
  3. structural properties emerge from the relationship between the entities; and
  4. emergent “synergistic” qualities characterize the process of collaboration.

Moderate revisions Stacy Kim (August 2012).

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