The difference between cooperation and coordination

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —April 27, 2008
Filed in Collaboration

After writing our paper on collaboration there were several things we wanted to explore that just wouldn’t fit into the original work. We are interested in when it’s unhelpful to collaborate, examples of when collaboration has failed, and how collaboration differs from similar terms such as co-operation and co-ordination.

So on the question of cooperation vs. collaboration I decided to phone a friend, well Skype chat some friends, and get their gut response to the question:

What do you think is the difference between cooperation and collaboration?

Now please remember that each person had no time to consider their response. It’s right off the top of their heads. Despite that caveat I think we got some excellent insights.

Here are the responses.

Mary Alice Arthur

Cooperation = working together so both of our needs get served. Collaboration = working together to create something/a higher outcome together.

Luke Naismith

Initial gut reaction is that cooperation is more shallow / surface level than collaboration which is a bit deeper – more about a shared meaning and purpose with smarts, more strategic / tactical rather than (co)operational. Other gut reaction is that it involves using technology – synonymous between web 2.0 and collaborative technology. never hear of cooperative technology. Sort of like the difference between wiki/blog shared conversation (KM) and supply chain logistics and e-commerce (IM). Fuzzy boundary though.

Dave Snowden

I think the only thing that I would add on reflection that collaboration implies that there a a “product” of some type at the end (and not an abstract one)

However as I said (and as is implied in the paper on a skim read) I think there is far too much emphasis placed on the individual and individual behaviours when people talk about this, and not enough about relationships and interactions per se. Social Atomism v Communitarianism, its one of the basic divides

Jim Benson

Amino acids cooperate to break down meat in my stomach.

I cooperate with a bunch of people in to create a massive pile of tagged information.

But I would collaborate with you on tagging specific documents for a book project.

Wilfulness and focus are key factors

Cooperation costs $125 an hour. Collaboration costs $350 an hour.

Victoria Ward

Some loudthinking. My daughter and I try to cooperate with each other about leaving the bathroom clean. I need her cooperation in certain respects and she needs mine. We are about to collaborate on arranging the financing for her university arrangements. Collaborator of course has undercurrents in other languages (French for example) of helping the existing regime in a morally corrupt or sleazy way. Cooperative has a good twang in the UK because of the cooperative movement which resulted in co-owned supermarkets, funeral parlours etc with some sense of community and collective investment and return. The cooperative society – It went through the doldrums and then has resurfaced and took some good moral ground in banking terms a few years back. As I write it feels to me more emergent. Individual morals, ethics and practices collect to create cooperation but it always stays individual somehow. Collaboration must, perforce, be a collective construct throughout. Or in the case of the wartime collaboration, the authorities, or those in power, created conditions in which individuals collaborated. I’m going round in circles here but I’ll write both words up and think about them. I suspect the only way is not to theorise but to think of actual circumstances in which one uses the word, both in public and in private life, and then see what the emergent definitions are. We could start a little trial space for the collection somewhere? I’ve a feeling I’d only use collaborate in a work context whereas I’d use cooperate much more in a private context. This is likely to mean cooperate has more meaning for me as a real word.

Patti Anklam

This is tough. I think we cooperate when we agree not to work at cross-purposes, and have an intention to help each other as need arises. Collaboration, to me, is always in view of a result — something we both want to create.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Matt Moore says:

    The image of a Venn diagram with two overlapping circles comes to mind (or possibly with one sitting inside the other). To contradict Luke, Howard Rheingold & IFTF talk about Technologies of Cooperation:
    Your paper is entitled “Building a Collaborative Workplace” – that’s an important piece of context-setting. We’re not talking about people working together generally – we’re talking about interactions within an organisation between colleagues – in teams, communities & networks.
    There’s s definitely a difference of intensity – collaboration implies a more intense relationship (for better or worse) than cooperation. Some interactions at the community/network level feel like they could be badged “cooperative”.

  2. Like Jim, I think the level of wilfulness (perhaps goodwill) is a key factor. Even in network collaboration it only becomes collaboration when their is wilful effort to work together to get things done such as Jim’s example of people agreeing to tag using agreed names for a book project.

  3. ken says:

    Thought you might be interested in knowing that HIV does not cause AIDS as mentioned in your collaboration paper.

    A Modern-Day Copernicus: Peter H. Duesberg

    Fwiw, freed from the constraints of a phone call, my take feels at odds with the consensus, oh well, nothing ventured… Wrestling with and coming to terms these Greco-Roman terms…
    – Congregation – get-together – wired to seek-similarity
    – Conflict – being-different – not wired so well for social-complexity, action/reaction
    – Community – becoming – membership, persists beyond ad-hoc congregations
    – Collaboration – making-stuff – specialisation, working-with others, producing, bringing-forth, manipulation, labouring, the task at hand, watching the watch on your wrist, waiting-for home time – valuing external reward – operating the process, for sale
    – Coordination – getting-stuff-done – planned, or spontaneous order, many actors, transacting
    – Competition – for-better-stuff – ownership, a selection process
    – Conversation – talking-about stuff, itself the stuff of markets
    – Corruption – not doing-good – concealed conversations, ownership as ends
    – Cooperation – for-each-other – respect, priceless, face watching (not clock watching), joint attention, responsibility, using your head (frontal-cortex), social-capital, wired to be social, feeling with, for and as-if, empathically – losing track of external time, internal state of flow – operating the human process
    If specialisation is for insects, what’s our constraining exoskeleton? What evolutionary advantage do hot blooded emotions give us over cold blooded reptilian brains – or will the bloody bugs outlive us when we destroy our world – that would be a tragedy (of the… 🙂

  4. ken says:

    Here’s an interesting spin on cooperation (and messy-stuff)…

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Hi Shawn: I wrote about this a couple of years ago:

  6. This is a real inspiring discussion. I posted a link to this at my blog. I, also, added a link to the work by Ted Panitz on this subject.
    Best wishes, MT

  7. todd says:

    Collaboration, to me is where we have a shared stake in the outcome and work towards a single purpose; cooperation is where our stakes (and agendas) are seperate and not neccessarily shared.

  8. Ron says:

    Cooperation is when I get the eggs out, cut the ingredients for an omelet and my wife cooks the omelet.
    Collaboration is when my wife and I decided on an omelet for breakfast.

  9. Rob Carver says:

    On the difference between cooperation and collaboration: the roots of each word offer hints. Cooperation requires only ‘operation’, which we can take as something which requires no change in momentum (of will, effort or any other inertial entity). Collaboration requires ‘labor’, implying exertion or application of force. While each is intended to lead to an end whose sum is greater than its parts, it is only cooperation that can be achieved through simple facilitation. Collaboration equals cooperation plus new effort.

  10. Bart Stewart says:

    To express it more briefly: Cooperation may be passive, but collaboration is always active.
    That’s the practical distinction, I think, behind Jim Benson’s perceptive phrasing: “Cooperation costs $125 an hour. Collaboration costs $350 an hour.” 🙂

  11. jack hooper says:

    I am completely agree with Mr.Arthur. It is practically correct.

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