Adult Learning, Choice in Learning

Why it is Better to Cooperate than Collaborate

Collaboration seems to be on the largest buzz word these days, and it is said to be highly desirable in both work and school. Multiple heads focusing on a problem is always better than one, so they say. But is this always the case? I actually think that teamwork and collaboration can be exceedingly difficult. Most people know that when a group of students are assigned to work on a project together, it is often the case that 1 person does the majority of the work, while the others waste time. I believe that this is why there should be a shift to a “cooperation” approach over a “collaboration” approach. When people cooperate on a team, everyone has a part to play. They know what they are supposed to do, and when they need help, it can be provided by others without disrupting the contributions provided by those people.

When working in the past, I can remember two distinct examples of cooperation vs. collaboration. In my job as a technical writer, I often worked on project teams, and my role was to write the manuals that instructed users on the equipment that the company manufactured. I usually needed information and pictures from the Engineering group, while they needed me to explain the manual procedures in a way that a non-technical audience could understand. Thus, we worked in a cooperative way to get what we needed to do our jobs. When we attended team meetings, we reported on our project status and told others what we needed from them to proceed. We cooperated with one another, and there was rarely conflict or contention because each person on the team had ownership of their component area of the project.

I often contrast this approach with another team project where I had the opportunity to collaborate with others. I was assigned to a brainstorming team. We were supposed to collaborate to come up with ideas for improving innovation in the company. However, our brainstorming team quickly descended into a shouting match, and the result was that a couple of loud-mouth members monopolized the meeting. Other members ideas were discarded and our greatest outcome from the meeting was to suggest that the company install a suggestion box in the cafeteria. Not too much innovation, since we all came from different functional areas of the company, and no one had any better knowledge or background in the area of innovation or entrepreneurialism as anyone else.

How does this relate to school projects and teamwork? I think teamwork can be a great opportunity for students if they have the chance to choose the types of team projects that they want, and that they are matched with others who are equally as interested and have the background knowledge to contribute in the project. Technology projects can easily provide those areas of choice. There is often much made about great innovation due to teamwork in companies such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft. However, it is important to note that all employees in these companies are highly skilled IP professionals from mostly Ivy League schools. They are very similar in their learning style and characteristics, and they have high motivation as well, since this is their chosen field. That’s why I believe a cooperative approach can be much better than a collaborative approach for teamwork. When different people focus on what they truly enjoy doing, and work with similarly motivated people in their chosen areas, this can be the best way to get things done.

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