JoAnn Hackos, PhD
CIDM Director

Collaboration is the theme for the Best Practices 2006 conference in September. The theme has generated considerable enthusiasm among CIDM members, covering everything from teamwork among information developers to initiatives involving training, support services, partners, and customers. The presenters document exciting possibilities for extending the influence of technical communication in the global enterprise.

But just because we’re excited about the possibilities inherent in a collaborative environment doesn’t mean that we know what it is. In an effort to understand what collaboration really means, I have a stack of books to read before I go to San Diego. One of them, Collaboration: What Makes It Work†, challenges us to know the difference among cooperation, coordination, and collaboration. I suspect that many of us claim to be collaborating when, in fact, we are still simply cooperating or coordinating.

The authors define 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 mutual relationships and goals; a jointly developed structured and shared responsibility; mutual authority and accountability for success; and sharing of resources and rewards.

Extending this definition to information development, we might find a collaborative environment when we join with others in the organization to reach common goals. For example, we might find that both information development and training want to provide valuable information to customers in support of their productive use of a product. Information development tends to produce published content delivered in print or electronically, while training delivers materials to support classroom instruction and e-learning. With a common goal in place, writers and instructional designers might find beneficial ways to help each other by sharing knowledge of user needs and source content. A potential benefit of the collaboration is to reduce the costs of development and ensure accuracy and consistency across information deliverables that reach the customers’ hands.

But is this relationship really a collaboration? If it’s informal, without a defined mission and joint planning and leadership, we should call it simple cooperation. We share information as needed, generally on an ad-hoc basis. Each organization retains complete autonomy in producing what it deems best for the customers. Resources are separate, and rewards are individual, as well. As the authors define it, that’s cooperation.

If the relationship becomes a bit more formal, we may move from cooperation to coordination. As the authors define it, coordination requires some planning and assignment of roles. To coordinate, we have to set up a method of communicating, perhaps in the form of regular meetings, a listserv or forum, or scheduled conference calls. The individual organizations are still in charge of their own activities, but the participants and leadership have committed to a relationship with real goals in mind. The organizations may even decide to commit some resources to the coordinated activities and reward the performance of the relationship if it achieves its goals.
If we set up a relationship between information development and training to mutually develop a set of manuals and course materials, using some of the same materials to reduce costs and enhance the customers’ experience, we might be coordinating. With coordination, however, the responsibility still remains with the individual organizations. Each develops its part of the information and makes it available, but how it is used in the final deliverables is up to the writers and the instructional designers.

True collaboration takes a great deal more planning and commitment. Consider a collaborative development environment between information development and training. In this case, individuals are specifically assigned to the activity. They develop a mission and goals for their joint work, perhaps with one or more projects involved and longer-term results.

The writers and instructional designers involved in the collaboration form a new organization with its own distinct leadership. The participants are assigned the new activity as part of their formal workload. Communication plans are developed, and the activity is planned and scheduled separately from the individual activities of each organization operating independently. Each organization has a stake in the outcome of the collaboration, especially in the business success of the venture and the effective use of pooled resources. The collaboration has its own budget, schedule, resources, and rewards.

I can certainly see all three models: cooperation, coordination, and collaboration, being used in relationship to information development and training. Each of these models might also apply to work with customer service, marketing, product development, and others inside and outside our companies. But, longterm, well-planned collaboration takes real work to be successful.

How, then, does a collaborative environment figure into our ideas about information development itself? Can we create a collaborative working environment among our own team members, whether they are co-located or globally distributed?
We do not collaborate when we send assignments to colleagues in India or elsewhere and tell them what they must do. We do not collaborate when we ask writers who otherwise work independently to reuse an occasional topic. Collaboration in information development is a much more deliberate activity.

Collaboration requires that we have four key ingredients in place:

• vision and relationships
• structure, responsibilities, and communication
• authority and accountability
• resources and rewards

In setting up such a collaboration, we first need to ensure that all the managers and players are fully behind the effort. Consider a collaboration in which a team of information developers works on the redesign of an information library for a product as part of a move toward topic-based authoring and content management. In a collaborative pilot project, a team is assigned that includes people from each part of the process, including writers, editors, planners, production specialists, localization specialists, and others. The team develops a shared vision of their projects so that everyone understands the stakes and the responsibilities.

The collaborative team creates a new organizational structure with clearly defined roles and responsibilities. It develops a plan, perhaps in the form of project phases, each with its own goals. The team develops ways of measuring its success, including maintaining a schedule, calculating cost savings, and others ensuring that the collaboration meets its goals.

In planning an information library, the team collaborates on the content architecture and the topics to be developed. Each team member receives an assignment that supports the central vision. Some work may occur independently, of course, but everyone is responsible for following the agreed-upon rules.
The team has resources, mostly in the form of people assigned, but often including funding for special services. They may engage an expert consultant to help with planning and to monitor the results. They may invest jointly in new tools. They have strong lines of communication established within the group, which helps to create an atmosphere of trust. If the collaboration is successful, all the team members share in the rewards.

If you’re considering that collaboration takes more work than you thought, I would agree. Putting together a true collaborative project takes leadership, time, and resource commitment. Despite the difficulties, a successful collaboration has a great payoff. It allows us to bring multiple perspectives and resources to bear on solving a complex problem. And, it’s a necessity in times of curtailed resources and time. Individuals and organizations are less likely today than ever to survive on their own. By collaborating, we can combine forces and succeed.

†Paul W. Mattessich, Marta Murray-Close, Barbara R. Monsey. Collaboration: What Makes It Work: 2nd Edition. St. Paul, MN: Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, 2004.