Understanding The Difference Between Cooperation And Collaboration

Practically, the terms cooperation and collaboration are interpreted differently or used synonymously. Using the terms interchangeable to express “working together” can result in misunderstandings between project participants as the concepts behind cooperation and collaboration are different. Therefore, it is important to define the terms clearly1. Both concepts are used when one party is unable to achieve an aim on their own, and consequently need knowledge and experience of one or more parties. According to Schöttle et al. 1 the terms can be defined as follow:

  • Cooperation is an interorganizational relationship among participants of a project, which are not commonly related by vision or mission, resulting in separated project organization with an independent structures, where the project culture is based on control and coordination to solve problems independently in order to maximize the value of the own organization.”

  • Collaboration is an interorganizational relationship with a common vision to create a common project organization with a commonly defined structure and a new and jointly developed project culture, based on trust and transparency; with the goal to jointly maximize the value for the customer by solving problems mutually through interactive processes, which are planned together, and by sharing responsibilities, risk, and rewards among the key participants.”

Based on the definitions it gets obvious that the relationship between project participants is very intense in collaboration as “previously separated organizations [will become] a new structure with full commitment” 2. According to Schrage3 collaboration is a “process of shared creation” and in contrast to cooperation not only an informal but also a formal relationship2. Based on literature, Schöttle et al.1 identified and assessed the differences between the concepts of cooperation and collaboration using 11 characteristics and in contrast to the concept of autonomy. Figure 1 illustrates their findings. The characteristics range from very low, low, high to very high. The further a characteristic is located from the center the more important it is for the evaluated concept1.

Figure 1: Comparison between autonomy, cooperation, and collaboration 1

In collaboration trust and transparency are key characteristics and the level of integration is very high. As soft characteristics have an enormous impact, collaboration does not exist directly from the beginning of a project and therefore, a development process is necessary1 to build a collaborative relationship between the project participants. Compared to collaboration, in cooperation risk does virtually not exist and if occurred treated separately by the contractual responsible party. The same separation exists also in the decisions-making process in cooperation. These results in less transparency and information exchange as in collaboration. Furthermore, in collaboration knowledge about the high dependence between project partners exists1, which results in a higher will to compromise in case a problem or conflict occurs.

The difference between the concepts can be explained with a continuum where cooperation is on the one end and collaboration on the other end, and different levels in between. Future posts will discuss the concepts cooperation and collaboration based on project delivery methods and in context to Lean Construction.


1. Schöttle, A., Haghsheno, S., & Gehbauer, F. (2014). Defining cooperation and collaboration in the context of Lean Construction. Proceedings of the 22th Conference of the International Group for Lean Construction (IGLC). Oslo, Norway.

2. Mattessich, P.W., & Monsey, B.R. (1992). Collaboration: What makes it work. Saint Paul, MN: Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.

3. Schrage, M. (1995). No more teams!: Mastering the dynamics of creative collaboration. Currency Doubleday, New York.

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