Collaboration: newspeak, a euphemism or a real deal

We’re nearly at the 2-year mark since COVID 19 disrupted our universe.  Businesses have learnt many lessons, and many have embraced new strategies such as collaboration, even with competitors.  In fact, competitors tend to embrace collaboration with each other more often than is recognised.  This is not surprising given that what makes businesses competitive is drive and sharp strategic thinking combined with courage and willingness to take risks.  This invariably includes an interest in collaborating with competitors in order to deal with major disruptions such as COVID 19.  There’s even a new buzzword for it; co-opetition.

So there has been lot more talk about collaboration in the last couple of years.  One may even be tempted to say that Mae West was onto something when she quipped ‘too much of a good thing can be a good thing’.  But, with all the talk about collaboration, with all the noise and grand pronouncements, how much of it is really true?  How much more are businesses collaborating now than a decade ago?  Has the collaboration-competition ratio really changed or are we only hearing newspeak, a flippant use of the term collaboration only to signal something entirely different?  One could wonder what can a business really signal when it deploys terms such as collaboration for every and any activity that, in truth, is nothing different from what they have been doing for years.  Working together is a literal definition of collaboration and has been for around two centuries, ever since the word started to be used in the English language.  It’s useful to remember that businesses have co-opted the word collaboration, not invented it.  Originally it was used in a far narrower sense.

Mae West in 1933.  Photo: General Photographic Agency / Getty Images

Many business leaders, strategists and key decision makers actually wonder if the word collaboration has become, as one executive told me recently, “too now and too sexy”, to the point where the term has lost its meaning.  This concern is shared by many globally.  The importance of collaboration in business has been well articulated over the past 30 years.  Perhaps the most succinct business case for it has been made by legendary Harvard Business School Professor, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, in the early 1990s when she wrote about collaborative advantage. 

In my own research of business collaboration trends, I have noticed that the concerns people express about the authenticity of collaboration, as opposed to simple overuse of a good word, is real.  Instinct seems to be worth paying closer attention to. 

Even a cursory look at many business collaborations reveals that the arrangements are not much different from conventionally commercial partnership arrangements.  The word collaboration is being applied more frequently, but not because there is more actual business collaboration as such.  In fact, while there has been an increase in usage of the word in general, in the past approximately five years there has been no such increase in the business world. 

So, what is going on here?  It appears two factors are at play; collaboration has become an everyday term used in virtually every area of daily life and usage of collaboration technology tools has made collaboration a kind of euphemism for what used to be called ‘teamwork’.

The combined effect is that we hear a lot of noise, but do not see much significant and necessary change in strategic orientation towards collaboration as a business practice.  The real concern here is that collaboration as a strategy that delivers multiple benefits in the form of business competitiveness, innovation, resilience, effectiveness etc, is being lost in everyday jargon that has little to no measurable impact. 

It’s fair to say that the meaning of words changes over time.  Collaboration is no different.  It has a two-century long history in English language usage, and over time has been used in different contexts.  In the early 1800s businesses did not talk about collaboration. It was mostly confined to a small area of academia and arts.  Today, collaboration is everywhere.  Swedish House Mafia, an electronic music supergroup, has just announced a collaboration with IKEA.  They will join a long list of big brands collaborating, such as Amazon with American Express, Nike with Apple, Burger King with McDonald’s and the list goes on.  A different narrative will emerge to capture the business collaboration practice in a more robust way. 

For now, let’s hope that Mae West was right.