Simply put, collaboration is working with another person or group in order to achieve something. However, collaboration is anything but simple. In order for collaboration to be successful, individuals must possess and harness skills and behaviors that allow for cohesive and productive teamwork.
The classroom, preferentially but not exclusively, is an excellent environment where such skills may be learned and developed. Educators and mentors promote collaboration by engaging students in group projects, team events, and volunteer opportunities. Students also have the opportunity to develop these skills further through extracurricular activities (i.e. sports teams, music and performance groups, community service projects, etc.). Student collaboration encourages knowledge growth, creativity, and developing expertise essential to solving complex problems. As today’s workplaces become far more global and complex, collaboration becomes far more necessary than ever before. This paper discusses how to collaboratively build and manage relationships, work constructively and effectively, and appreciate diversity in the workplace.
Build and Manage Work Relationships
High school and university are the ‘practice course,’ so to speak, for professional partnership and participation. Though often times through an awkward trial and error process, students learn how to interact and conduct themselves in a professional manner in heterogeneous groups. In order to facilitate this process, educators can design weekly activities that give students experience in observing group processes and experience in implementing and leading activities. These experiences foster the skills students need in order to present their own ideas and listen to the ideas of others.
The first step in building relationships is to evaluate oneself. One way is to give students self-reflection exercises that include questions such as:
- How do you feel about working in a team?
- Do you prefer to take a leadership or supporting role?
- What are your concerns about working on a team?
- What time of the day are you most productive?
Questions like these begin the process toward productive group work as the student becomes self-aware, better able to interpret his/her own needs and emotions, and better able to identify his/her own motivations and those of others.
Next, provide students with group guidelines so that they have a solid foundation with which to build their group relationships. For example, “each effective collaborative team must proceed through four basic stages: (1) choosing team members, (2) dividing the labor, (3) establishing work guidelines, and (4) terminating the collaboration” (Austin & Baldwin, 1991, p. iv). You may allow students to choose their own team members or assign groups, depending on what is appropriate for the subject or project. Be available to advise students as they partition the work, ensuring that each student does his/her share. Establish work guidelines according to the assignment and, finally, explain how the assignment and participation will be graded.
We’ve described a fairly straightforward strategy here that ensures constructive teamwork - but do not hesitate to make it your own! Each class, subject, and even group requires its own mode of learning and doing.
Work Constructively and Work Effectively
An invaluable and crucial element to any good collaboration is conflict resolution. Dealing with conflict deftly comes with experience, however, students may continually work to develop this skill throughout their personal and professional lives.
Working constructively and effectively involves identifying areas of agreement and disagreement. This usually follows discussions, debates or arguments that describe the needs and desires of each member of the team. Disagreements are expected and not something to shy away from in group work. They oblige team members to understand the dynamics of the debate, make objective arguments, and recognize the rights of each member. Furthermore, team members exercise flexibility in making compromises, negotiating, and contributing, in order to accomplish a mutually agreed upon goal. Finally, members must then accept the team consensus, adhere to an agenda, and assume shared responsibility.
Researchers James A. Wall, Jr. and Ronda Roberts Callister in their article “Conflict and Its Management”, define conflict as “a process in which one party perceives that its interests are being opposed or negatively affected by another party” (Wall & Callister, 1995, p. 517). They go on to explain that conflict produces a distinct set of products, one being resolution or “deadlocks” where the problem or person(s) deemed to be creating the problem are simply tolerated. Resolution may result with one side benefiting at the other’s expense or both sides benefitting. Though we strive for the latter, conflict may still leave ‘negative residue’ in the workplace. Frustration, distrust, and lack of motivation or commitment may occur. However, conflict also brings about positive changes. It improves group efficiency, productivity and decision making. It stimulates creativity, challenges older ideas, and reframes issues. On a personal level, conflict encourages self-awareness (what one brings to the table and what one can be improved upon) and learning (Wall & Callister, 1995, p. 525).
Conflict is inevitable in collaborative settings. It is how conflict is acknowledged, worked through, and concluded that allows for a productive and congenial workplace.
Diversity in the Workplace
Maximizing and harnessing the power of diversity in the workplace has become an important issue in modern management and collaborative workplace culture. As once disparate fields become more and more global and interconnected, students will encounter people from all over the world, of different backgrounds, ages, and experience.
Diversity is derived from an assortment of varied and distinctive individuals, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. “When creating a successful diverse workforce, an effective manager should focus on personal awareness” (Green, Lopez, Wysocki, & Kepner, 2012, p. 2). In order to equip youth to appreciate, adapt to, and capitalize on their differences, afford them with opportunities to collaborate by cooperating with each other. Incorporate group input and feedback into their classwork. The Associated Student Body at Temple City High School in California, does a debriefing exercise after each major school event that involves a ‘pro’ and ‘con’ list where things that went well/were appreciated are listed on one side of a whiteboard and things that need addressing/improvement are listed on the other side. This allows for both self and group reflection - involving both praise and criticism - all with the goal of improving future events and collaboration.
Through a study involving over two-thousand people, researcher Jackson Lu and his colleagues found that “close intercultural relationships promote creativity, workplace innovation, and entrepreneurship - outcomes vital to individual and organizational success” (Lu, Hafenbrack, Eastwick, Wang, Maddux, & Galinsky, 2017, p. 1). They further found that foreign professionals who maintained regular contact with the friends they made while working in the US, showed to be more innovative after returning home (Lu et al., 2017, p.1). Deep learning often results from intercultural relationships, as one must juxtapose and synthesize different cultural perspectives in order to acquire new cultural insights and understanding.
An increasingly diverse workforce, born in diverse classrooms, yields many benefits for organizations. Respecting individual and group differences creates “a competitive edge and [increases] work productivity” (Green et al., 2012, p.3).
In your diverse classrooms, teams, or groups, take advantage of our technologically saturated society to encourage collaboration. Use collaborative technologies to examine issues from multiple viewpoints. This aids in effectively developing, implementing, and communicating new ideas and solutions to others.
Online vs. Offline collaboration
Collaboration can happen in a variety of ways with or without technology. In order to weigh and measure online vs. offline collaboration, researchers Kath Fisher, Renata Phelps, and Allan Ellis, of Southern Cross University, redesigned and tested a course about teaching group processes. Previously, the course was offered both on- and off- campus, and their redesign offered the course via online delivery. They found that the online course design adequately enabled many of the face-to-face interactions integral to the subject matter. Further, the overall experience allowed for an excellent learning opportunity for students to analyze and reflect upon group processes in both the online medium and traditional group theory (Fisher, Phelps, & Ellis, 2000, p. 485).
This research also found that “straddling the gap between face-to-face and print-based distance education through exploring the online dimension requires careful educational design and adequate professional development for teachers” (Fisher et al., 2000, p. 494) in order for online collaboration to be successful. Establishing a standard of commitment and participation can be tricky in dealing with online discussion. In a face-to-face setting, it is noticeable when someone does not contribute to the discussion (or just walks away!). In an online setting, it is far easier for students to disappear or contribute lack-luster responses. Many argue that online mediums foster misunderstanding because they do not explicitly provide subtle communication (such as body language) that may indicate how someone in the group is truly feeling. Body language may not be seen, yet one student in the study remarked that non-verbal communication can be observed in the online disagreements. Prior to a conflict, the discussion channel was filled with responses. The responses suddenly and simultaneously stopped when conflict occurred, though every group member could still be seen ‘online’. The conflict was only resolved when a member tentatively offered a solution (Fisher et al., 2000, p. 489). Therefore non-verbal communication is not limited in online collaboration, on the contrary, it simply takes on another form.
Though there are difficulties involving online collaboration, the researchers concluded that “the flexibility offered by the online environment allowed opportunities for course redesign to meet the needs of the particular group, flexibility that is not possible in traditional distance education” (Fisher et al., 2000, p. 494). Despite several challenges and frustrations in delivering an online unit, the students who remained gained a great deal of knowledge and experience in dealing with group processes in both their interactive potential and issues that arose.
Working constructively and effectively through interpersonal interaction is integral to today’s evolving work environment. Youth should be prepared to self-reflect on their own personal biases, strengths, and weaknesses, in order to better contribute to a team. After some self-reflection, they can begin to build working relationships and engage in productive group work.
Keep in mind that mixing different backgrounds generally leads to multiple perspectives, and that’s a very good thing for collaborative work! Diversity often leads to incredible innovation. In responding open-mindedly to different ideas and values, students will be able to work creatively and collaboratively with others. Encourage students to deal positively and sensibly with success, challenges, obstacles, and criticism, as they are all normal and healthy aspects of any collaboration.
Furthermore, be open to online collaboration as well. There is flexibility offered in online work that face-to-face collaboration simply cannot offer. Teach students that the upside of online collaboration is the experience they can gain from a challenging shift in perspective. Online collaboration is not meant to replace traditional learning experiences, but rather to enhance the overall collaboration, learning and results.
Aimee offers an online community in which youth can connect and collaborate with other youth users based on their interests and/or geographical location. Through the bio, users may showcase their individual passions and projects, and maybe even team-up and collaborate with like-minded peers! This Aimee community also allows youth to collaborate with mentors or employers in their desired fields. When they are ready, youth users can either share their online bio with a peer, college or employer -- or they can export a resume to support a college or career application. Aimee believes that collaboration in any form enhances the experience and preparation of youth for whichever path they choose to pursue next in their young and active lives.
Austin, A. E., & Baldwin, R. G. (1991). Faculty Collaboration: Enhancing the Quality of Scholarship and Teaching. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 7. Washington, DC.: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.
Fisher, K., Phelps, R., & Ellis, A. (2000). Group processes online: teaching collaboration through collaborative processes. Educational Technology & Society, 3(3), 484-495.
Green, K. A., López, M., Wysocki, A., & Kepner, K. (2002). Diversity in the Workplace: Benefits, Challenges, and the Required Managerial Tools. University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.1(4), 1-3.
Lu, J. G., Hafenbrack, A. C., Eastwick, P. W., Wang, D. J., Maddux, W. W., & Galinsky, A. D. (2017). “Going out” of the box: Close intercultural friendships and romantic relationships spark creativity, workplace innovation, and entrepreneurship. Journal of Applied Psychology, 102(7), 1091-1108.
Wall, J.A. & Callister, R.R. (1995). Conflict and Its Management. Journal of Management. 21(3), 551-558.