Collaboration and Cooperation

I was asked, by email: I was very interested in your distinction Groups vs Networks. Can we say it has a direct parallelism with the distinction Collaboration vs Cooperation? In terms of enabling student’s freedom, how would you describe each one?

I believe that you can draw a connection between the two distinctions. Collaboration belongs to groups, while cooperation is typical of a network. The significant difference is that, in the former, the individual is subsumed under the whole, and becomes a part of the whole, which is created by conjoining a collection of largely identical members, while in the latter, the individual retains his or her individuality, while the whole is an emergent property of the collection of individuals.

I have identified four major dimensions distinguishing the role of the individual in collaboration from the role of the individual in cooperation:

- Autonomy - in the case of a collaboration, the actions of the individual are determined with reference to the needs and interests of the group, and are typically directed by a leader or some sort of group decision-making process. Groups often have a 'common vision' to which each member is expected to subscribe. In a cooperative enterprise, each individual participates out of his or her own volition, and acts according to individually defined values or principles.

- Diversity - in the case of a collaboration, diversity of aim or objective is not desired. While individuals may engage in different activities, each is understood only in terms of the common end or goal, as in the production of a car on an assembly line. It is important that people speak the same language, sing from the same songbook, or otherwise exhibit some sort of identity with other members. In the case of cooperation, there is no common element uniting the group; rather, each individual engages in a completely unique set of interactions based on his or her own needs and preferences. There is no expectation even of a common language or world view.

- Openness - in the case of a collaboration there is a strong sense of group identity, a clear boundary between who is a member and who is not, often to the point of excluding non-members and even hiding large parts of the group's activities from view. In a network, by contrast, there is not a clear boundary or even a recognized set of members. While membership in a group is an all-or-nothing thing, membership in a network may be tenuous, drifiting in and out, like a lurker at the edge of a conversation.

- Interactivity - in the case of a collaboration, information typically diffuses from the centre to the periphery as people receive their 'marching orders'. A 'broadcast network' is more common of a collaborative organization. Management, structure and hierarchy govern the connections and flow of information. Group communication dynamics are characterized by a 'big spike', whether or not there is a long tail; that is, a few members will have an influence disproportionate to the rest, and will use their positions to define the 'common' or 'shared' values that will be held by the rest of the group. In a cooperative enterprise, by contrast, there is a relative equality of communications and connectivity; there will be no big spike or single centre of influence.

In general, the properties describing those of collaborative relate to mass. The creation of movements, whether nationalistic, religious or political, are based on amassing large numbers of people united under the same sign, set of beliefs or statement of principles. These mass activities are often instantiated in the figure of one person, a leader or inspiration. The same belief is held by each of the members, who will also share a certain language or jargon, and this belief propagates from one person to another through a process of diffusion, conversion or enrollment into the case.

The properties describing a cooperative, by contract, relate to organization. The creation of networks, whether they be economic or commodity marketplaces, infrastructure or communication systems, ecologies or ecosystems, social networks, local communities, and the like, is based on sets of interactions between members where these interactions form, as a whole, a unique, distinct and recognizable entity note based in the individual actions, beliefs or values of any, or even all, of the individuals, but rather exhibiting its own logic based on is organization.

It is interesting no note how the traditional 'process' freedoms relate almost entirely to the formation of groups or collaborations. They are not individual freedoms so much as a set of mechanisms that allow the creation and formation of new groups (which was a stunning advance for its time, an era when typically only one group at a time would be allowed to legitimately exist). Consider how 'freedom of assembly', 'freedom of the press' and even 'freedom of speech' allows people to create new groups, while 'freedom of opinion or religion' allows a person to join new groups.

In terms of freedom, it is my belief that a cooperative network engenders greater freedom. This is because, even though process freedoms (freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, etc.) may be the same in the two models, and indeed, essential for each of the two models, the network model allows more freedoms in other dimensions. In particular, an individual working cooperatively has greater empowerment; not merely the right to freedom of expression, but a channel to connect to others, and the means to live according to the beliefs expressed. And the individual in a network is free from a variety of pressures, pressures to conform, pressures to stipulate to a belief or creed, language requirements, nationality requirements, and the rest.


  1. Thanks Stephen for your wonderful insights and inspiration. I resonate with your views.
    I am wondering if we could draw a similarity between education (as a group) and learning (in individual and social learning). How about the notion of education requiring collaboration and learning (individual & social) requiring cooperation? Would there be instances where we require both education and learning (i.e. collaboration and cooperation) within networks?

    From an educational point of view, we need common vision, shared and agreed goals in a community, an institution or business organisation. From an individual learning point of view, each of us would like to exercise our autonomy and thus achieve our passion and dreams.
    "An individual in a network is free from a variety of pressures, pressures to conform, pressures to stipulate to a belief or creed, language requirements, nationality requirements, and the rest"
    What would be the implications if individuals are "educated" and nurtured in a "group" environment with a focus on networks? The learners may be educated to exercise their freedom and passion in the network, but what would happen when they join the organisation where "common vision" and compliance is the golden rule and expectations in an institution or business world? Can we have both education and learning achieved through networks? How would that be achieved?

  2. Interesting food for thought. I do recognize the four dimensions. Although in the Netherlands we make a distiction between "belang" and "interesse". The first is much stronger (often combines with values) than the latter. Collaboration is focussed on "belang", cooperation on "interesse". And as far as interactivity is concerned, I would prefer to speak about different ways of communicating.
    Are you familiar with the computer supported collaborative learning literature? Cooperative learning is often seen as a form of cooperation where students work (and learn) together and each student is responsible for a partial product. Collaborative learning involves a mutual commitment of students. They have to solve a common problem together. See: Dillenbourg, P. (1999). Cognitive and computational approaches. Amsterdam: Pergamon.

  3. @Wilfred - I'm sure you could point me to papers in the literature I haven't seen - it is such a bother to get access to paid-content journals I often don't see articles published there. Books are even worse; there is no (English) academic library in Moncton and the local bookstore is hopeless.

    I'll translate 'belang' and 'ineresse' freely (and probably incorrectly) as 'belonging' and 'interest'. The one joins, the other merely connects.

  4. Seems to me that some networks become groups, such as people gathering around a particular cause through their similar efforts. If enough network based learning students were to meet, they might organize a means of helping each other. If there is enough effort required to organize it, somebody may step up to work as a facilitator and communication hub. That person, or people, then become a common voice for the group that used to be a network. At least that's what I'm seeing in this set of patterns.

    There might be a way to mix the two. For instance in the example above, the network of students creating a tutoring group, there could be levels of interaction. The core of facilitators and communicators, the consistently active participants, the un-official active participants and the not so active is a breakdown I've seen before in school clubs a few times. It was more of a technical, rather than functional, distinction where the center made available opportunities to those who wanted to participate, and maintained through people joining the center as needed.

  5. Stephen, you know that I'm involved with "dialogue and deliberation". Your dimensions apply there too, and I thank you for them.

    While I don't share your belief that groups are inevitably coercive (eg. "marching orders"), your dimensions do highlight the contrasting political perspectives of autonomy versus community. I also believe your use of the term "group" generally refers to what communications theorists call "bonefide groups" that enculturate and structurate themselves rather than remain loosely associated or formed ad-hoc through a common interest or invitation.

    Dialogue is surely a network/cooperative activity as you describe. In fact, the dialogic pattern called "Open Space" calls for dialogue groups to form without prescription, to talk about what matters to them, within a certain useful scope, the theme of an unconference/barcamp for example.

    Public deliberation is collaborative in that it focuses an ad-hoc working group on a policy problem, but attempts to mitigate the coercive group effects or norms (eg. civil behaviour) through facilitation. The subject matter is usually related to public cooperation.

    Based on your useful dimensions, I'd say deliberative processes attempt to bridge the gap between siloed groups and the broad social network.

    Thank you again for inspiring me to think aloud. The network works in mysterious ways.

  6. @stephen: I'm sorry. But 'belang' is not the same as 'belonging'. It's really hard to translate. Ted Panitz wrote about the difference between collaborative and cooperative learning:
    His distincion differs from Dillenbourg.
    Dillenbourgs paper:
    And see:

  7. @Stephen Egan, that was the experience we have in CCK08 and CCK09, which were led by Stephen Downes and George Siemens. Roy, Jenny and I formed a small research group to study about connectivism, blogs and forums etc. and we collaborated within the small community, whilst cooperated with other CCK09 participants and instructors in the networks.

    @Stephen Downes Here is my extended response to your post:

  8. Here is the my response post:


  9. I have found a similar distinction group / network in a study (sorry in french!) analysing social network in entreprise:

    This study clasification of tools along the two following dimensions :
    - document centred / conversation centred
    - community (visible shared components) / networking (peer to peer, invisible by the community).

    The reference

    Etude d’Useo sur les réseaux sociaux d’entreprise.
    Le RSE, socle technologique de l’entreprise 2.0


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