Types of team collaboration
Collaboration comes in many shapes and forms. Determined by a large number of formal, organizational, or stylistic factors, we can identify many different types of team collaboration. All of these types have their distinct characteristics that play a role in the course of the project and the quality of the collaboration itself.
Over the following lines, we will use a variety of criteria to recognize different types of team collaboration and focus on how their particularities impact the nature of the professional partnership.
There are many different ways to approach the categorization of team collaborations. As we are not focusing on a particular aspect of team collaboration but observing the field as a whole, we will do our best to cover a broad range of criteria to identify some of the most common collaboration set-ups, both in terms of their formal structure and their stylistic characteristics.
The criteria of scope
While the primary focus of this article (and the collaboration knowledge library as a whole) is collaboration on a team level, it is important to identify other models of collaboration that fall outside the internal organizational boundaries. In terms of their scope and their reach, we can identify the three main types of collaboration:
- Team collaboration
- Community collaboration
- Network collaboration
As we will further focus on this model of collaboration in the following lines, we will use this space to simply note the main characteristics of this type of collaboration that separate it from the others.
Team collaboration is marked by defined participants and their roles, a relatively clear division of interdependent tasks, expectations of reciprocity, and explicitly stated goals and timelines. Individual members fulfill their individual tasks in order to achieve their shared goals. The degree of structured hierarchy and leadership in team collaboration may vary, but the participants generally operate on the principle of equality, both in their day-to-day operations and in the recognition of their collective achievements. Team collaboration can also take place on an inter-organizational level where members of different professional entities form a joined team, but this model of collaboration is also defined by the above-mentioned characteristics of a structured membership, defined roles, and shared goals and timelines.
This model differs from team collaboration in its shift of focus from achievements to knowledge-sharing. Community collaboration revolves around a shared area of interest, where the members of the surrounding professional community reach out to their peers for help in overcoming challenges, provide advice, and work together on tasks and projects unrelated to the tasks and projects of the participants’ parent organizations. The membership in this type of collaboration is most commonly fluid and undefined, although there are exceptions where the collaboration is more defined and structured. An obvious example of this type of collaboration is Wikipedia, where community members contribute their expertise to their chosen area of interest.
This type of collaboration also involves the contributions of individual members of a professional community. The main difference between network and community collaboration is that the latter is focused on benefiting the community, while the former is primarily focused on the objectives of the individual participants which also provide value to the community.
A collaborative network is defined as a partnership between autonomous individuals and organizations that share knowledge and resources supported by a computer network. The participants are geographically dislocated and the collaborations span either parts of different industries or entire global professional communities. The participants work towards the realization of their individual goals, but share the data and resources they implement and generate in their work.
Depending on the specific professional areas, there are numerous models of network partnerships that differ significantly in terms of their scope, objectives, and specific arrangements.
The criteria of communication channels
Based on the primary mode of communication among its participants, team collaboration can be conducted digitally or in-person. These two collaboration types are not an “either-or” proposition, as they can be utilized interchangeably, depending on the specific team set-up.
The technological advances of the last two decades have ushered in a new age of collaboration of distributed teams and paved the way for the growing wave of remote work. Digital collaboration is a form of professional partnership conducted through digital means and channels of communication. It enables collaborators from different geographic locations to communicate and cooperate both in real-time and asynchronously.
It is safe to say that most contemporary professional organizations rely on digital collaboration in some form and capacity. The benefits of digital collaboration are not only reflected in the connectivity of physically dislocated participants, but in a number of other aspects: the ease of storing information and its accessibility, synchronization with a wide array of digital tools that enables greater coordination and efficiency, the convenience of sharing of knowledge and resources, lower operational costs, and so on.
The “traditional” manner of collaborating face-to-face has been lost in the shadow of remote collaboration in recent years, but it still holds great significance and carries a number of unique benefits. In-person collaboration is conditioned by the shared location of its participants, who communicate directly with one another in order to share their expertise and insights towards the achievement of a common goal.
In-person collaboration takes place in a variety of formal or informal ways, from immediate communication between its participants, organized meetings, workshops, or brainstorming sessions. While digital collaboration is better suited for ongoing work-related communication, as it is recorded and accessible, in-person collaboration is better suited for complex situations that require broader discussion and involve a large number of participants, where a consensus can be reached in a relatively short time span, particularly compared to the dreaded scenario of long and exhausting email threads that can be quite ineffective and difficult to navigate.
The criteria of synchronicity
Collaboration can take place either in real-time, where participants are simultaneously engaged on a shared task, or it can happen in a time-dislocated manner. By this criteria, we identify two models of collaboration: synchronous and asynchronous.
This type of collaboration requires the participants to work together at the same time. Communication is immediate with a continuous exchange of knowledge and information. This type of collaboration is not determined by location, as it can take place in-person, but can also be conducted via other means of communication, such as a video call or a chat.
As synchronous collaboration is time-efficient, it is best suited for situations that require an immediate response, discussion, and quick alignment. However, it is not ideally suited for any collaborative situation, particularly situations that require a concentrated individual and independent effort, where attempts at communication from other participants can distract from the work at hand. Such situations are best resolved with solid scheduling and creating specific time slots for synchronous collaboration.
In this type of collaboration, the participants are not required to immediately engage in communication. While the information from their collaborators reaches the participants instantaneously, they can choose when to respond. Common examples of asynchronous collaboration are emails, interactive shared documents, status updates, etc.
Asynchronous collaboration is best suited for ongoing work that doesn’t require anyone’s immediate attention, as well as ongoing discussions that require more time and preparation from the participants. This type of collaboration is also well suited for teams with members spread across different time zones.
The criteria of location
While professional teams have traditionally shared the same physical space, in recent years that has increasingly become an option instead of a fact. Based on the criteria of location, we can identify co-located and remote types of collaboration. In terms of its defining characteristics, this division runs almost parallel to the digital/in-person dichotomy, with the main difference being that remote collaboration is exclusively reliant on digital means of communication.
This type of collaboration takes place in a shared physical space (ie. an office). Team members work in physical proximity and are able to communicate in a direct and immediate manner. Aside from the characteristics already mentioned with in-person collaboration, the distinctive quality of co-located collaboration is the potential of developing strong interpersonal relationships, which leads to a higher level of understanding between the participants, as well as a higher degree of motivation for the success of their joint efforts.
Remote collaboration takes place among distributed teams, where members operate from different locations, with digital tools as their only means of communication. We have already described how digital collaboration impacts professional partnership, so we will focus on the specifics of the remote experience.
Coordination is the crucial aspect of remote collaboration, where members are often spread across different locations, time zones, and even cultures. Achieving alignment among remote team members is the absolute priority, and it is achieved through transparent communication, smart planning, regular meetings, and active discussion between participants, with respect to everyone’s working hours and other unique circumstances.
The criteria of organization
Team collaboration is not always set up around a structured team with fixed roles and defined short and long-term goals. Specific professional situations often require unique groupings of individual participants in order to fulfill a variety of different objectives. Based on these criteria, we identify three main types of collaboration: static, ad-hoc, and open.
This type of collaboration describes the traditional team framework. It is characterized by defined, repetitive long-term processes (ie. tasks) performed by participants with assigned roles. This type of collaboration is best suited for predictable professional scenarios, where activities are planned and executed with a long-term perspective predicated on relative stability and no great need for flexibility and adaptability.
The Latin term “ad-hoc” translates as “for that purpose”, meaning that this approach is utilized when necessary, for a particular purpose or need. This type of collaboration takes place in highly dynamic professional situations and environments, where tasks and objectives change in time or their complexity requires additional resources. The tasks and operations that are the subject of ad-hoc collaboration most commonly take place only once and are not repetitive.
Ad-hoc collaborations are distributed in nature, involving participants from different organizational divisions or even different organizations. These collaborations are established to answer specific challenges and most commonly dissolve once these challenges are sufficiently addressed.
Open collaborations are similar to the previously mentioned community collaboration. In this type of collaboration, the task is not specifically assigned to any individual or entity, with participants freely contributing to the shared interest. There can be varying degrees of coordination among collaborators, from none whatsoever to a more structured and defined approach. The supervision of the work can also be distributed or centralized, with the quality controlled either by the system itself, a designated entity, or the feedback of the community. This type of collaboration is best suited for long-term work with no defined objectives, no time or quality constraints, and a highlighted need for a distributed and diverse know-how.
The criteria of style
Team collaboration is often defined by the individual characteristics of the participants that form into an aggregated collective quality. All participants assume a certain role on the team, and the division and the distribution of team roles determine the collective characteristics of the team as a whole.
From this perspective, we can identify six different collaborative styles in a team setting: divisible, additive, compensatory, disjunctive, conjunctive, and discretionary style. It is important to note that, in practice, teams are not restricted to a single collaboration style and can modify their approach to best tackle the specific task at hand.
Divisible style of collaboration
This type of collaboration takes place in a professional setting where tasks can be split among team members and then integrated into a collective body of work. Divisible style is marked by a lower degree of active collaboration among team members, instead relying on the defined nature of the work and an emphasized division of roles and responsibilities. This approach allows participants to employ their skill set independently of one another and relies on a high level of coordination in achieving the collective goal.
Additive style of collaboration
This style of collaboration functions as the mirror image of the divisible style. Instead of the collective work being divided among participants, the independent individual efforts of team members add up to form a body of work aimed towards the achievement of a shared objective. The expected outcomes are defined, but the work itself is not defined and predictable to the extent that it can be divided in advance. This style allows the participants to shape the course of the project through their unique contributions and qualities.
Compensatory style of collaboration
This type of collaboration is utilized in situations that require multiple perspectives and expertise in order to produce the desired results. This model is determined by the multidisciplinary qualities of its membership, where team members with unique skill sets “compensate” for the lack of expertise in a certain area by providing their relevant input. On such teams, members are not interchangeable as they all perform specific roles and “fill in“ specific gaps that can not be addressed by the skill sets of other members.
Disjunctive style of collaboration
At a first glance, this style of collaboration seems like the opposite of collaboration, as it does not focus on the strength of the team, but its strongest link. It might be difficult to envision a collaborative scenario revolving around an individual, but there are professional scenarios that require an “all for one” approach. As an example, let’s imagine one team member presenting at an industry event, and other team members pooling their resources in order to help them prepare – whether through research, feedback, encouragement, and other forms of assistance.
Conjunctive style of collaboration
The opposite of the disjunctive style, the conjunctive approach to collaboration focuses on the strength of the team as a whole and everyone’s individual contributions. This type of collaboration is marked by a high degree of interdependence between the work of team members, where each individual contribution represents a piece of the puzzle necessary for the success of the joint venture.
Discretionary style of collaboration
This approach to collaboration is marked by a high degree of self-organization within a team. Instead of following a fixed template of role division and repetitive tasks, team members choose how to approach any given task, depending on its specific circumstances. This approach has no distinct methods of task completion and it does not exclude any of the previously mentioned styles, but instead utilizes any one of them that the team feels best suits the specific work at hand.
Collaboration is a fluid concept that does not have to be constricted by a fixed set of methods. Our work exposes us to a variety of professional scenarios, and we can not tackle all of them with the same pre-defined approach. Active collaboration requires us to be flexible in our approach to individual challenges and seek out modes of operation suited for different scenarios. Understanding the distinct characteristics, the benefits, and the shortfalls of different types of collaboration is essential, as it informs our choices and allows us to modify our approach in order to be more effective, collaborate better, and achieve more.