The “Collaboration Continuum,” Viewpoint, and Communication

I’ve been thinking about how collaboration in its various forms can have a profound influence on how we view and interpret the world around us, and thus how we communicate about it.

Collaboration Continuum Models

There are various models of the collaboration continuum — the range of engagement in collaboration from none to full integration. Just Google the phrase “collaboration continuum” to find plenty of examples. Here are a few:.

  • UCSF document on building community partnerships identifies 5 stages in the continuum: Networking / Coordinating / Cooperating / Collaborating / Integrating
  • model available through the ACT for Youth website uses the same 5 stages but also illustrates that as collaboration evolves over time from Networking to Integrating, “Turf” thinking decreases as “Trust” increases.
  • Another model represents the stages as “five C’s”: Contact / Cooperation / Coordination / Collaboration / Convergence. Overlaying this model are left-to-right arrows showing increasing investment, risk, and benefit as one moves from contact to convergence. (I can’t remember where I found this model, so I can’t include a link here.) [Update 10/12/2012: Many thanks to Linda Marchisio for finding a source for the “Collaboration Continuum” five C’s model. I can’t remember any more if this is the report I read. But since the authors do not cite another source, it must be the original. See page 10 for a discussion of the collaboration continuum within the LAM (Library, Archives, Museums) context:]

Typically, as you move toward a more integrated or intense level of collaboration, you benefit from increasing levels of commitment, shared values, and trust, and, if done right, possibly cost savings as duplication of work and miscommunication is reduced. The ACT for Youth model, which overlays the turf/trust dichotomy and timeline, suggests what are, for me, two key components in collaboration: 1. moving into and through the collaboration continuum is a learning experience requiring cultural change that can only happen over time;  2. these cultural changes are profound and involve a fundamental change in mindset — in how we see and interpret our world (for example, the movement from “turf to trust”).

Collaboration Affects Viewpoint Affects Communication

While this transformation toward shared values and shared mission can be a wonderful and productive thing, the shift in perspective experienced by the involved parties isn’t necessarily shared by the rest of the organization. If the progression into collaboration/convergence is organic and takes place over a long enough period of time, the point at which one sits on the continuum might feel so natural that it seems self-evident. We take it for granted.

Inside the collaboration/convergence we develop certain ingrained, shared understandings and assumptions about all kinds of things — behavior, group norms, values, our relationships among ourselves and with others — that allow us to communicate and work productively together. But outsiders to the long-developing collaboration/convergence, who haven’t had the cultural experience and made the cognitive shift, may not understand why the collaborators experience and talk about the world the way they do. They don’t share our assumptions. Frequently in collaborations, members of the collaborating group come from various separate units, departments, or even organizations. In this case, outsiders may be likely to see the collaborating group as a collection of representatives from separate and distinct units who just happen to work together (i.e., “contact” or “cooperation” on the continuum), rather than as a cohesive whole in itself (i.e., “collaboration” or “convergence”). And collaborators have a tendency to forget their long mental journey toward collaboration/convergence and thus assume that everyone sees the world from their vantage point.

This played out recently for me in a meeting where some of us were talking about borders between work responsibilities while others (in this case the cross-departmental collaborators) were perplexed because they didn’t perceive any departmental boundaries whatsoever in their collective work. We couldn’t understand each others’ viewpoints because we didn’t take into account the cultural differences — because of collaboration — that informed our divergent viewpoints.

Collaboration is certainly not the only cause of cultural difference and miscommunication in the workplace. But it is one that is probably more overlooked than we think. As our work becomes more and more collaborative, and traditional departmental affiliations are attenuated, we need to be attuned to the less obvious situational affiliations that color how we and our colleagues see the world. Otherwise we risk talking past each other.


Many thanks to Linda Marchisio for finding the original source for the “Collaboration Continuum” to the