Review theory and research on collaboration.  Learn about the core competencies associated with collaboration in home, school, workplace, and public contexts.
Medical personnel dialog with one another in an operating room.

Collaborations are often structured around roles and areas of expertise. Photo Credit: "Fort Belvoir Community Hospital astounds with groundbreaking technology and devotion to patient care" by Army Medicine is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Medical personnel dialog with one another in an operating room.

Collaboration Definition

Collaboration refers to

  1. the act of working with others or AI (Artificial Intelligence) to solve problems, coauthor texts, and develop products and services,
  2. a method for creating new products, applications, and services
  3. the act of learning from others
    • Language and learning are social practices. We learn from watching, imitating, and dialoging with others
  4. a highly prized workforce competency, a life skill
    • Employers consistently rank collaboration as one of the top 5 most important competencies needed for success in schools and the workplace (NACE 2021)
  5. a subject of study
    • Researchers engage in basic and applied research to investigate collaborative practices. Collaboration is an ongoing topic of research and investigation:
      • “Despite the reliance on teams for much that is accomplished in our society, there is still little known about the processes that occur within a team that help account for real differences in outcomes” (Brannick, Salas, & Prince 1997).

Related Terms

  • Collaboration Skills, Collaborative Skills
  • Collaboration Competencies, Collaborative Competencies
  • Collaborative
  • Collaborating
  • Collaborators
  • Collaboratively

Related Concepts: Archive; Canon; Coauthor – Coauthorship; Conflict Resolution; Mindset; Openness; Team Charter; Teamwork

Why is Collaboration Important?

Collaboration is deeply interwoven into our identifies and communities as humans.

Collaboration plays a key role what and how we think. As humans, we learn by working with and imitating others. We create new knowledge by dialoging (e.g., scholarly conversation), co-authoring, peer reviewing and critiquing the texts of others.

To do well in school and prosper in our knowledge economy, you may be asked to co-author works, use collaboration tools to facilitate project coordination and transparent communications, and productively respond to conflict in groups, and critiques from others. Collaboration is deeply interwoven into our identities and communities as humans. We learn by working with and imitating others.

In general, people are social: they are healthier, more productive, and more creative when given opportunities to work collaboratively. Well— at least that’s true for a large part of the population: the extroverts. Introverts, in contrast, may prefer working alone. Some people find it intrusive and counterproductive to work in groups. But in our information age even introverts cannot escape moments of collaboration.

The Collaboration Pyramid
Openness to and engagement with others lays the foundation for teamwork. Photo Credit: “The Collaboration Pyramid” by oscarberg is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Collaboration in the Workplace

Collaboration is a highly prized workforce competency. In the U.S., the National Research Council, the National Science Foundation, and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills have identified collaboration and teamwork as a core workforce competency.

In its annual survey of employers’ perceptions of the proficiency of college graduates, NACE (the National Association of Colleges and Employers), has consistently found that prospective employers in the U.S. rank collaboration/teamwork as the second or third most important workforce competency. In its Job Outlook 2022, collaboration/teamwork ranked as the third most important attribute employers look for in candidates (after critical thinking and communication competencies). 

When looking at a candidate’s resume,

  • 76.3% of the respondents said they look for evidence of a candidate’s ability to work in a teams
  • 97.7% of employers ranked Collaboration/Teamwork as a requisite workforce competency
  • 77.5% of the employers believe current college graduates lack proficiency as collaborators
Scholars collaborating at an academic conference. Photo Credit: Moxley

Collaboration in the Classroom

In the U.S., educational systems privilege individual work over collaborative work. Thus it may not be surprising that some students struggle with collaborative assignments:

  • Workloads can be uneven
  • Students are not always pleased to be tasked with group projects or peer review
  • Other team members may not have the requisite literacy and collaborative competencies

Researchers have traced student resistance to collaborative work to “environmental forces (family history, social class, and cultural identity) and students’ previous negative experiences with CL [collaborative Learning] in the classroom” (see Stover and Holland 2018).

Collaboration & Learning

Language use is invariably collaborative. Language is a social construct— a consequence of cultures and people working together to understand experience and to learn from and communicate with one another (see Discourse). In his pioneering work on learning and language development in the 1920s, Vygotsky (1978) theorized that infants learn to think by learning the language of others, and that eventually language becomes abbreviated and saturated with personal meaning and associations as it goes underground and becomes inner speech— i.e., the voice we hear in the back of our minds, the voice we hear when facing obstacles and difficult problems— and writing.

Collaboration Skills

What are the 8 Elements of Collaboration?

In their extensive review of research on collaboration, Cannon-Bowers et al.’s (1995) posited there are eight core skills that comprise collaboration:

  • Adaptability
  • Shared Situational Awareness
  • Performance monitoring and feedback
  • Leadership – Team management
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • Coordination
  • Communication 
  • Decision making.

1. Adaptability

“The process by which a team is able to use information gathered from the task environment to adjust strategies through the use of compensatory behavior and reallocation of intrateam resources” (p. 344)

2. Shared Situational Awareness

“The process by which team members develop compatible models of the team’s internal and external environment; includes skill in arriving at a common understanding of the situation and applying appropriate task strategies” (p. 344)

3. Performance Monitoring and Feedback

“The ability of team members to give, seek, and receive task-clarifying feedback; includes the ability to accurately monitor the performance of teammates, provide constructive feedback regarding errors, and offer advice for improving performance” (p. 344)

4. Leadership/Team Management

“The ability to direct and coordinate the activities of other team members, assess team performance, assign tasks, motivate team members, plan and organize, and establish a positive atmosphere” (p. 345)

5. Interpersonal Relations

“The ability to optimize the quality of team members’ interactions through resolution of dissent, utilization of cooperative behaviors, or use of motivational reinforcing statements” (p. 345)

6. Coordination

“The process by which team resources, activities, and responses are organized to ensure that tasks are integrated, synchronized, and completed within established temporal constraints” (p. 345)

7. Communication

“The process by which information is clearly and accurately exchanged between two or more team members in the prescribed manner and with proper terminology; the ability to clarify or acknowledge the receipt of information” (p. 345)

8. Decision Making

“The ability to gather and integrate information, use sound judgment, identify alternatives, select the best solution, and evaluate the consequence (in team context, emphasizes skill in pooling information and resources in support of a response choice)” (p. 346).

Collaboration and AI

Collaboration also refers to instances of Human & AI (Artificial Intelligence) collaborations. Increasingly, people collaborate with machines to complete tasks. For instance, doctors work with AI (artificial intelligence) to diagnose diseases; architects to design safe buildings; engineers to build machines, and consumers to receive service help.

Students, as a form of prewriting and strategic search, may ask ChatGPT, a natural learning process tool developed by OpenAI, to summarize what is known and what the research questions are currently being debated on a particular topic.

Collaboration & Intersubjectivity

Photo Credit: “students presentations (20)” by cambodia4kidsorg is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Communication with others is invariably a collaborative act: Effective communication and interpretation relies on shared meaningsa shared interpretative space — between the author and the audience. At a minimum, in order to communicate, rhetors and their audiences need a shared vocabulary and grammar. Communication is further enhanced when rhetors and their audiences share commonplace discourse conventions, such as shared expectations regarding the appropriate register, diction, genre, media, and rhetorical stance. Communication tends to be less tricky when rhetors and their audiences share a common vocabulary, epistemological assumptions regarding what constitutes an appropriate research methodology and valid knowledge claim, stories, histories, senses, jargon, rituals, histories, instincts, desires, personalities, attitudes–and so on.

Communication theorists may call these shared meanings between creators and their audiences

In Writing Studies, the term intersubjective refers to what writers/readers and speakers/listeners share in common. Additionally, this interpretative space is called intersubjective to highlight the subjective nature of interpretative and communicative efforts. As humans, our subject positions, histories, and conceptual lenses shape what we see and how we interpret what we see. For instance, our political ideology may inform whether or not we believe President Trump committed bribery or high crimes and misdemeanors during his term in office

In face-to-face situations, when collaborating with others whom we interact with a lot, a shrug of shoulders, a rolling of eyes, or even a sarcastic comment can convey volumes of information. Conversely, when communicating with non-like-minded people, we must work harder to establish a shared context. Thus rhetors need to engage in rhetorical analysis of their communication situation.

Works Cited

Cannon-Bowers, J. A., Tannenbaum, S. I., Salas, E., & Volpe, C. E. (1995). Defining competencies and establishing team training requirements. In E. Salas & R.A. Guzzo, Team Effectiveness and Decision Making in Organizations (pp. 333, 380). Wiley.

Cannon-Bowers, J. A., & Salas, E. (1997). A framework for developing team performance measures in training. In M. T. Brannick, E. Salas, & C. Prince (Eds.), Team performance assessment and measurement: Theory, methods, and applications (pp. 45–62).  Lawrence Erlbaum.

Hutchins, E. (1995). Cognition in the wild. MIT Press.

Michael T. Brannick, Eduardo Salas, & Carolyn W. Prince. (1997). Team performance assessment and measurement : Theory, methods, and applications. Psychology Press.

Moxley, J. & Eubanks, D. (2016). On keeping score: Instructors’ vs. students’ rubric ratings of 46,689 essays. WPA: Writing Program Administration, 39(2), 53-78.

NACE 2021. Job Outlook 2022. U.S. Government Printing Office.

NACE 2017. Job Outlook 2017. National Association of Colleges and Employers. U.S. Government Printing Office.

NACE 2016. Job Outlook 2016. National Association of Colleges and Employers. U.S. Government Printing Office.

Oliveri, M., Lawless, R., & Molloy, H. (2017). A Literature review on collaborative problem solving for workforce readiness. GRE Board Research Report Series and ETS Research Report Series, 1-27. doi:10.1002/ets12133

Stover, S., & Holland, C. (2018). Student resistance to collaborative learning. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 12(2).

Wilson, James H. and Paul R. Daugherty (July-August 2018). Collaborative Intelligence: Humans and AI Are Joining Forces. Harvard Business Review.

Vygotsky, Lev (1978). Mind in Society. Harvard University Press.