Cooperate, coordinate, collaborate

“Cooperate, coordinate, and collaborate” — this is the call of President Duterte to small nations to implement to attain prosperity for all, during the opening ceremony of the recently held Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2018.

Also referred to as the 3Cs of togetherness, we tend to use these terms interchangeably to mean working together effectively to achieve a common purpose. When all are used and combined in writing and speech, it creates a feel-good, mushy ambiance but does not deliver the message clearly. Used individually, each work conveys certain strengths as well as limitations.

In my lectures and talks about soft skills, I ask the audience on the meanings of and differences among the 3Cs, only to engender descriptors such as “working together” and “common purpose.” They have all reason to confuse one to the other. Even dictionaries define the 3Cs differently. and Merriam-Webster give these definitions:

• Cooperation: 1. the process of working together to the same end; 2. a situation in which people work together to do something

• Coordination: 1. the organization of the different elements of a complex body or activity so as to enable them to work together effectively; 2. the process of organizing people or groups so that they work together properly and well

• Collaboration: 1. to work jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavour; 2. to work, one with another; cooperate, as on a literary work

To better understand the meaning of each, let’s understand its etymology and historical significance.

According to, the word cooperation originated from Middle French and Late Latin in the 1620s which meant “the act of working together to one end.” This period in the 16th century witnessed the birth. It was during the 1600s that Galileo and Newton founded modern science; that Descartes began modern philosophy; that Hugo Grotius initiated international law; and that Thomas Hobbes and John Locke started modern political theory. European states also entered into worldwide international competition for wealth and power through colonization of America and Asia.

These developments likewise necessitated the “need to work together” instead of competing. Cooperation is the antithesis of competition, but the need to compete with others in the areas of politics, science, and trade became the impetus for individuals to organize into a group and cooperate with each other to form a stronger competitive force.

The term coordination likewise surfaced during the 17th century from Medieval Latin coordinate “to set in order, arrange”. It gained popular use in military warfare and later on in business during the late 19th century. Management forefather, Henry Fayol, posited business principles which included “meetings of heads of departments and heads of divisions to ensure coordination”.

Lastly, collaboration originated in 1830s From French and Latin collaborare “work with.” This period witnessed US and European countries consolidating, requiring them to “work with” others to maintain peace. The period also saw the emergence of the Industrial Revolution, led by James Watt’s improvements to the steam engine, and his “collaboration” with industrialist Matthew Boulton on the creation of the rotative engine which was crucial for industrial production.

Nowadays, collaboration is often used in corporate and business settings. Especially led by Google’s Sundar Pichai who believes it is important to build an organization where people want to work together and set up collaborative cultures.

There’s no doubt that the 3Cs are needed in modern organizations, especially in this day and age of warp-speed technological advances, that put a premium on human skills — those that cannot be replace by robots. But we need to be cognizant of the distinct definition of each term, which is dependent on the vision and relationships, number of shared tasks, resources and methods between the agents. A great distinction of characteristics of each term was authored by Blank et. Al. in their 2001 work, Collaboration: What Makes It Work.

“Basis for cooperation is usually between individuals but may be mandated; organizational mission and goals are not considered; interaction is on an as needed basis; relationships are informal and each organization functions separately; and no joint planning is required. Information is conveyed as needed.”

On the other hand, coordination is where “individual relationships are supported by their organizations; mission and goals of the organizations are reviewed for compatibility; interaction is usually around one specific project or task; organizations assume needed roles but still functions separately; some project specific planning is required; and communication roles are established and channels for interaction are created.”

Lastly, collaboration is where “commitment of the organization is fully behind the individual; common, new mission and goals are created; one or more projects are undertaken for longer term results; new structure and/or formal division of labor are created; comprehensive planning is required including measures of success; and many levels of communication and channels for interaction are created.”

Obviously, collaboration is the biggest word in terms of meaning and scope. People use it loosely as a catch-all terminology. But people also just need to either coordinate or cooperate. The distinctions are important.

Reynaldo C. Lugtu, Jr. is President & CEO of Hungry Workshorse, a digital and culture transformation firm. He is the Chairman of the ICT Committee of the Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines (FINEX). He teaches strategic management in the MBA Program of De La Salle University. He is also an Adjunct Faculty of the Asian Institute of Management.