Collaboration as a term is now everywhere. It is a word that has gained currency, in part because it evokes a kind of touchy-feely quality. But connotations can be tricky when details are complex. There are still many who feel uncomfortable with the word. To some it carries very negative connotations, perhaps even going back to times when collaborators meant the enemy. And in today’s world we occasionally see the term collaboration used (tragically) in relation to some of the world’s hot spots.
How did I arrive at this angle? It all started with an innocent headline – Denmark wants to rebrand part of Sweden as ‘Greater Copenhagen’. This article appeared recently in The Guardian and I noticed it mostly because, having previously lived in Scandinavia, I retain an interest in the region. My first reaction was nothing out of the ordinary as I only saw a bit of journalistic creativity at display. Words seem to be typically arranged in a way to grab attention.
However, when I read the article I recognised that, had it been written in the context of two different countries in a region where conflicts are not a rarity (as they are in Scandinavia), it would be a very different and much more sinister story. Even so, as I read through the article I sensed in fact that even these two peaceful neighbours may be experiencing a bit of tension. The crux of the matter is a proposal, or initiative, by the Danes to reclaim a part of Swedish territory under a rebranding of the city of Copenhagen. To be precise, Copenhagen would be renamed “Greater Copenhagen” and it would include a sizable chunk of southern Sweden (including its largest regional city Malmo).
This particularly caught my attention because the Danes pitched this as a proposal for ‘collaboration’ which they hoped their neighbours would embrace enthusiastically. To many this may simply seem like spin on the part of a city (Copenhagen) which wants to better its image and economic fortunes in the long run. The city of Copenhagen is linked by a bridge (itself a marvel of engineering) to the city of Malmo which may seem like a good opportunity to increase the physical link and transform it into something more, and, if the words of the mayor of Copenhagen Frank Jensen are to be believed, “size matters”. My points is this: the idea itself is not that relevant as much as the way collaboration is evoked. One side, in this case the city of Copenhagen, has identified an opportunity and it seems logical that it wants to pursue it. The challenge is how well collaboration is to be considered.
A question worth considering when potential collaboration is in play is how to handle projects whereby one party suggests a ‘collaboration’ to another party which may see the proposal as a threat. How do we avoid creating a tensions and possible challenges by proposing a collaboration? How do we avoid turning the term collaboration into a euphemism for something sinister?
In my experience true collaboration is when parties are not ‘selling’ something to each other; rather they jointly sell something to their clients. It is inevitable that transfer of skills, knowledge and other resources will occur in collaboration. Transactions are necessary. But they should be a means to a larger, shared goal. When that shared vision is well understood and aligned in an operational sense, then we can clearly avoid the unnecessary danger of playing with words. Even when those words sound innocent.