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General theory of collaboration

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for detailed steps and processes used in progressive business, academic and creative groups see collaborative method.

General theory of collaboration[edit]

Currently there exists no consolidated, general theory of collaboration (GTC). Such a theory could provide a common language and framework for those seeking to better understand and expand the collaborative aspects of any given field of human endeavour. Additionally, a GTC would provide a body of knowledge on which those developing collaborative software and other design-based enterprises might draw.

Collaboration is fostered when there is an expected beneficial outcome by the collaborators. If human nature is basically selfish, due to our inherent primal survival instincts, collaboration is a step above selfish thinking when we can see the benefits of our combined efforts. When living in a primitive tribe meant more food and more safety, it was an obvious choice to join, and contribute to, or collaborate with, the tribe. In today’s western world of hyper-freedom and uber-independence, collaboration is much more difficult to achieve. Most of us live in a world of abundance in regard to food and material needs, and for the most part we rarely feel unsafe. It could be that poverty-stricken or homeless people would in many cases be better collaborators, due to necessity, than neighbors in a high-end neighborhood. If you have doubts about this, attend a Western World Home Owners Association meeting to look for collaboration and mutual need fulfillment; and measure also the number of non-attendees as non-collaborators.

The more significant the causal outcome, the higher the participation and commitment level will be amongst collaborators. Contrast the success of World War II collaboration between all Americans, from the housewives building airplanes, the rationing of all commodities to the populace, the purchase of war bonds, nearly complete patriotic support, etc.; to the Vietnam war where the cause was questionable and the threat was less much less substantial to Americans and other world residents, and the support of Americans was greatly divided. Collaboration of smaller groups functions on a similar level, but also has a more obvious foray of other interpersonal challenges. Factors such as Greed, Selfishness, Narcissism, Risk, Embarrassment, Trust, Control, Talent, Ability, and Ignorance, must all be overcome prior to achieving the desired outcome of the group. Many of these challenges are subconscious or ingrained behavior, and persons who remain ignorant to them will not be successful collaborators.

Successful Collaboration has been described as Synergy, where the sum is greater than all the parts; i.e. 2+2=5. This can be true if all four collaborators are outcome driven, and have left their selfish interests behind. However, due to the independent nature of modern western man, it is all too common that 2 + 2= 3 (or 2) depending on the net loss of effort caused by selfish interests.

References to theories of collaboration[edit]

The literature is somewhat lacking in general theories of collaboration, but one review by Wood and Gray [1] claims that any comprehensive theory of collaboration must address:

  • the meaning of collaboration itself;
  • the auspices under which a collaboration is convened and the role of intervention in directing social change;
  • the implications of collaboration for environmental complexity and organizational control over the environment; and
  • the relationship between organizations' self-interests and the collective interests present in a collaborative alliance.

Directions for inspiration[edit]

Collaboration is a subject of research in many diverse and disparate fields. It is possible that through transdisciplinary research (such as Meta Collab) a GTC may emerge simply by bringing existing theories to the foreground. In the meantime, inspiration may be drawn from the following bodies and traditions of research:


Perhaps the 'ology' a GTC is most likely to belong to, is sociology. Concerning itself with the social rules and processes that bind and separate people not only as individuals, but as members of associations, groups, and institutions, research done in this area may shed much light on the process of collaboration.


Karl-Erik Sveiby did a survey of global business in 2002 to measure collaborative climate against different demographics. His survey concluded: "Collaborative climate tends to improve with age, physical proximity, education level and managerial role. It is generally better in the private sector than the public sector. Collaborative climate seems to peak at the mid-size firm level. Employees tend to experience a U-formed appreciation of the collaborative climate: very positive at recruitment, then deteriorating and later (among the survivors) improving again."


Ethnography refers to the holistic, qualitative description of human social phenomena, based on fieldwork. Ethnographic studies of collaboration in its context of manifestation, might also provide valuable insights into the process from an 'eye level' perspective.


As a social animal, the human being's behaviour is per definition a form of collaboration according to the standard dictionary definition - 'working together with one or more in order to achieve a common goal.' From this perspective, collaboration is a naturally occurring phenomenon, embedded in our DNA. Darwin argued that cooperation and collaboration must have evolved as an evolutionary advantage.

It is from this orientation that we could look to biology for a general theory. Collaboration as an evolutionary force runs somewhat counter to traditional Darwinian notions of 'survival of the fittest.' This line of inquiry has been explored in some depth in Robert Wright's book, Nonzero:The Logic of Human Destiny. In the view that this position holds, cooperative nonzero sum games (see Game theory) are a counterpoint to competitive zero sum games, filling a space sometimes referred to as 'Darwin's blind spot.' 'Darwin's blind spot' refers to the perceived over reliance upon competitive, 'survival of the fittest' theories to account for all of the variations attributed to evolution, in particular, group and multilevel selection theory.

Collaboration may be instinctive and selected-for in evolutionary terms because it succeeds. But we collaborate not because it succeeds, necessarily, but because it is fun. True collaboration, in hunting, in the arts and music, in sports, in raising children,in BIM, is a joyous experience, and gives you a feeling that you cannot get from any individual pursuit. That feeling is the remarkable sense of collective accomplishment. We did that.


In finding similarities and differences in the nature, methods and motivations of collaboration across any and every field of human endeavour. The answer to that not too modest question depends on what exactly is meant by endeavour.

Suppose endeavour is understood as any economic activity, then economics teaches us, that:

  • the nature of collaboration is either market transactions or decision making in a hierarchy to coordinate the allocation of scarce resources in production, distribution of income and finally consumption;
  • the methods of collaboration are clearing of markets through price adjustments on the one hand and control of information on the other hand performed by rational acting agents;
  • the motivationndeio' of collaboration is pursuit of self-interest.

This line of thought originates in Adam Smith's 18th work "An inquiry in the causes and nature of the wealth of nations", and all subsequent classical and neo-classical economics.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

General theory[edit]

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