Ten Lessons in Collaboration

Deborah B. Gardner PhD, RN, CS


Online J Issues Nurs. 2005;10(1) 

In This Article

What is Collaboration?

Collaboration is an intricate concept with multiple attributes. It is defined in a variety of ways, many of them explicitly referring to interdisciplinary collaboration (Henneman, Lee, & Cohen, 1995). Attributes identified by several nurse authors include sharing of planning, making decisions, solving problems, setting goals, assuming responsibility, working together cooperatively, communicating, and coordinating openly (Baggs & Schmitt, 1988). Related concepts, such as cooperation, joint practice, and collegiality, are often used as substitutes. They share some, but not all, of collaboration's attributes.

Teamwork and collaboration are often used synonymously (Thomas, Sexton, & Helmreich, 2003). Baggs and Schmitt (1988) reframe the relationship between collaboration and teamwork by defining collaboration as the most important aspect of team care, but certainly not the only dimension. The description of collaboration as a dynamic process resulting from developmental group stages (Gray, 1989) and as an outcome, producing a synthesis of different perspectives (Cary, 1996) more accurately reflects the reality that collaboration evolves in partnerships and in teams. The overlap between team/group process and collaboration is related to the nature of collaboration as a developmental process. Baggs and Schmitt (1988) reframe the relationship between collaboration and teamwork by defining collaboration as the most important aspect of team care but certainly not the only dimension.

From an inter-agency context, Gray (1989) explores collaboration as a process by framing it in three phases: problem setting, direction setting, and structuring. During the problem-setting phase stakeholders negotiate their right to participate. Agreement on the problem and what actions and resources are needed to address it are established during the direction setting phase. During the structuring phase, those agreements are implemented by allocating roles, responsibilities, and resources.

A more robust description of the concept of collaboration is derived by integrating Follett's outcome-oriented perspective (1940) and Gray's process-oriented perspective (1989), is offered below. Both authors strengthen the definition of collaboration by considering the type of problem, level of interdependence, and type of outcomes to seek. The following description of collaboration is based on the work of both Follett and Gray:

Collaboration is both a process and an outcome in which shared interest or conflict that cannot be addressed by any single individual is addressed by key stakeholders. A key stakeholder is any party directly influenced by the actions others take to solve a complex problem. The collaborative process involves a synthesis of different perspectives to better understand complex problems. A collaborative outcome is the development of integrative solutions that go beyond an individual vision to a productive resolution that could not be accomplished by any single person or organization.

This conceptualization of collaboration, which recognizes that collaboration is both a process (a series of events) and an outcome (a synthesis of different perspectives), will guide the lessons described in this article.


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