What is collaboration? How can I be a better collaborator? Review research and scholarship on collaboration. Explore the interpersonal competencies, the workforce competencies, that comprise collaboration.
Musicians collaborating in the park / Moxley Musicians collaborating in the park / Moxley

What is Collaboration?

Collaboration is the act of interacting and working with

  1. co-authors to compose texts
  2. other writers, either individually in groups, to provide feedback and critique
  3. audiences to receive feedback and guidance.

The competencies associated with collaborative acts are called interpersonal competencies. These competencies, as demonstrated by the review of research below, are highly prized by employers.

Key Concepts: Archive, Canon, Interpersonal Competency; Collaborative Problem Solving

Why Does Collaboration Matter?

Collaboration is deeply interwoven into our identifies and communities as humans. We learn by working with and imitating others.

Collaboration Also Involves Listening to and Reading the Work of Others/ Moxley

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 even introverts cannot escape moments of collaboration.

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 core workforce competencies. NACE (National Association of Colleges and Employers) found employers rank collaboration and teamwork as the second most important workforce competency (after critical thinking) in their surveys of employers regarding the degree of their satisfaction with the work product of college graduates

  • 98.7% of employers said collaboration is critical to workforce success
  • 70% of these employers believe college-level graduates are well prepared to work in teams.


Screen Capture of Need vs. Proficiency on Career Readiness

Source: Job Outlook 2017. (2017). National Association of Colleges and Employers. Bethlehem, PA: U.S. Government Printing Office.

In the U.S., educational systems privilege individual work over collaborative work. As a result, some students may struggle with collaborative work. Workloads can be uneven. Other team members may not have the requisite literacy and collaborative competencies. Students are not always pleased to be tasked with group projects or peer review. 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).

However, collaboration is like a muscle–just like anything, you have to work at it to get better. And given what we know about the workforce, it is a beneficial competency to develop. 

Over the years, a great deal of theoretical work and empirical research has been conducted concerning collaboration in the workplace and academe. Cannon-Bowers et al’s (1995) review of research posits eight core skills related to collaboration:

  1. adaptability,
  2. shared understanding of the situation,
  3. performance monitoring and feedback,
  4. leadership,
  5. interpersonal relations,
  6. coordination,
  7. communication, and
  8. decision making.

In 2017, Maria Elena Oliveri and her fellow research scientists at Education Testing Service published A Literature Review on Collaborative Problem Solving for Workforce Readiness, an exhaustive review of research on collaboration, building on the work of the National Research Council and Cannon-Bowers et al.

Based on their review of literature, Oliveri and her colleagues proposed four core competencies related to collaborative problem solving:

Teamwork Team Cohesion, Team Empowerment, Team Learning, Self Management/Self Leadership, Adaptability/Open Mindedness
Communication Active Listening, Exchanging Information
Leadership Organizing Activities & Resources, Performance Monitoring, Reorganizing When Faced with Obstacles, Resolving Conflict, Transformational Leadership
Problem Solving Identifying Problems, Brainstorming, Planning, Interpreting & Analyzing, Evaluating & Implementing

Language Use as a Collaborative Act

Language use is invariably collaborative. Language is a social construct—a consequence of cultures and people working together to understand experience and collaborate to make the world a better place. Language precedes the individual. According to Vygotsky and other social constructivists, thought is theorized to be prelinguistic: as children we learn to pair our thoughts with language. Over time, as we are exposed to language, we develop inner speech, an idiosyncratic form of language that is saturated with personal meaning and associations. Inner speech is what we hear when we think, what we mumbled to ourselves when facing obstacles and difficult problems.

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. Collaborations between humans and machines are anticipated to soon become more commonplace.

Collaboration & Intersubjectivity

Effective communication and interpretation relies on collaboration between the author and the audience. When we enter a rhetorical situation, either as rhetors and audiences, we are able to communicate when we share some commonplace knowledge, such as knowledge of a language, dialect, genre, motif, and story (see Writer’s Guide).

Communication theorists use a variety of terms to refer to this shared interpretive space between the author and the audience:

The term intersubjective refers to what writers and readers or speakers and listeners share in common. At a minimum, when we communicate, we rely on a common vocabulary, images, stories, histories, senses, jargon, rituals, histories, instincts, desires, personalities, and attitudes. 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.

Additionally, this social space is called intersubjective to highlight the subjective nature of interpretative and communicative efforts. As humans, our subject positions, our 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 when he held back $400 million in military aid for Ukraine in exchange for Ukraine conducting an ethics investigation of Vice President Joe Biden’s son.

Useful Videos on Collaboration

Collaboration @ Writing Commons

Facilitate productive partnerships on writing projects, define roles, set schedules, self-assess, and be transparent and communicative about obstacles, expectations, and performance.

Conflict Resolution
Be a zen master when it comes to reducing and perhaps even eliminating the inevitable conflicts that occur when people engage in collaborative tasks.

Work strategically with critical feedback. Learn from critiques made by instructors, bosses, peers and clients.

Learn how to plan activities and resources, resolve conflicts, and reorganize when faced with obstacles. Develop self-leadership competencies. 

Peer Review
Give helpful criticism in work and school settings (as well as life in general).

Team Cohesion; Team Empowerment; Team Learning; Self-Management/Self Leadership; Adaptability, Flexibility, and Open Mindedness

Tools for Project Management
Use tools such as Google Docs to coauthor texts, track efforts, set goals, and hold coauthors accountable.

Invitation to Contribute

Do you have projects and activities that help students navigate critique, feedback, and conflict? Do you have exemplary models of project management? Please contribute to our ongoing effort to help writers collaborate in school and workplace contexts.

Works Cited

Cannon-Bowers et al. (1995). 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). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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

Job Outlook 2016. (2016). National Association of Colleges and Employers. Bethlehem, PA: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Job Outlook 2017. (2017). National Association of Colleges and Employers. Bethlehem, PA: U.S. Government Printing Office.

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

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

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

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

Stover, S., & Holand, C. (2018). Student Resistance to Collaborative Learning. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (12: 2).