I was invited to talk to a group of wonderful library, IT, and teaching and learning center staff at UMASS Boston in early December; they are thinking about new ways to organize their community liaisons, and they asked me for my two cents. I loved every minute of it; they were enthusiastic, engaged, reflective, fun. And here’s what I said, somewhat abbreviated.
When you look up the definition of liaison, you get what you’d expect. A person who interfaces between two organizational units to “ensure unity of purpose.” That makes sense. But I like some of the more obscure meanings of the word, too, like “any thickening for soups, sauces,” such as cream. Liaisons should see themselves as binders and thickeners. Liaisons, you are cream. Hold that thought.
I then worked with Lee Shulman’s definition of collaboration, as “a marriage of insufficiencies” (see “Communities of learners and Communities of teachers,” Mandel Institute, 2007, freely available online) and the well-known contrast in education thinking between collaboration and cooperation.
Cooperation, in my recap, is how you work together in a static environment. Your roles are defined, you basically perform consistently: you do things together that you don’t have to do together, you do them for convenience, and you don’t need to communicate much, because you all know your part. Collaboration, on the other hand, is the inverse. You do things together that you can only do with other people, because the goal is lofty, and none of you is sufficient to the task. It’s improv rather than reading scores, it’s sailing a boat in a storm rather than having a transaction at a bank window, it’s risky, it makes you vulnerable, you’re aware of and processing together all sorts of environmental factors and responding dynamically; there are feedback loops on top of feedback loops, and there’s a massive emphasis on communication.
I proposed four hypotheses related to collaboration and cooperation:
- In an environment of change, collaboration becomes more important.
- Collaboration is required for group adaptation.
- Collaboration builds relationships.
- Liaisons may be the best positioned to collaborate of all the people in the entire planet.
A brief explanation of these: I decided that in our fluid, changing environments, we have to collaborate to be successful, that that collaboration is the only way to get a group of people to do something differently, that it’s the best way to build relationships with peers (because you have to have each other to survive), and I suggested that it’s the role of the liaison, in particular, to effect collaboration. Because the liaison is by nature half in and half out of the group. Relationships–a tying-together kind of thing, in other words, a thickening of the soup, bringing us back to the cream idea. N’est-ce pas?
Some notata bene I felt it important to add:
- Collaboration is politically vulnerable.
- Collaboration works best in a community that appreciates it.
- Confusion about when cooperation or collaboration is more appropriate freaks people out.
- Collaboration takes a lot of time. And the groundwork is invisible. And it’s occasionally hard to explain.
- Collaboration (and learning in general) is anxiety provoking.
- Collaboration builds on cooperation and is a ground for it.
Explanation: basically collaboration comes at a cost: being highly unstable, political unwise, and anxiety-provoking; we should not jump into it without knowing the costs. The best of all worlds is when your enlightened boss, school, organization know(s) what it means to collaborate and unleash(es) you to do it, with all that it will consequently entail for you and them, including lots of short-term inconveniences, because they want the long-term payoff.
Another two points I think worth making. First, it’s probably wrong to contrast these two approaches, which really need each other. I can’t really collaborate if we haven’t been cooperating or if I can’t subsequently evolve that collaboration into a cooperation.
Second, every organization at any given moment should be running some mix of collaboration and cooperation. Lean towards cooperation in the calm periods. Lean towards collaboration in the crazy periods. Whatever the case may be, it is important that everyone on the team knows what that mix is, and who is doing what. As a kind of natural collaborator, I see all the time the quite remarkable stress caused when peers assume I should be cooperating, and I’m collaborating. If you’ll have a particular person do one or the other, it would be good to let everyone know it, and to know the ramifications thereof, and to say a blessing on them.
As a tantalizing concluding device, I’ll leave you with this little association table I concocted–eight, arbitrarily chosen, other ways of expressing the same sort of dichotomy I develop here between collaboration and cooperation:
- Transactions vs. Virtual Circles
- Linear or Causal Systems vs. Complex, Dynamic Systems
- Departmental or Compartmental Views vs. Institutional or Holistic Views
- Consistent Performance vs. Inconsistent Creation
- Bergson’s Intellect vs. Bergson’s Intuition
- Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset (see Carol Dweck)
- Red Ocean vs. Blue Ocean
- IQ Test vs. Zone of Proximal Development