Collaborate / Co-Operate – What’s the Difference?

As you can see from the previous post, our Director Nicola Richardson has been speaking at the Radi! conference in Riga, Latvia.

The item that leapt out at me from her company report, was the fact that in Latvian, there is only one word – SADARBIBA – to cover both Collaboration and Co-Operation, and that the meaning is closer to the latter.

On further investigation, I found the same is true in Lithuanian – BENDRADARBIAVIMAS – and Estonian – KOOSTOO.

This got me pondering as to the etymology of our own two words, and how we explain the clear, but nuanced difference.

Although both words are essentially, “together-work”, the connotations of each are fascinating. “Labour” of course, has implications around giving birth – which rings true for me in how a good collaboration feels – but there is also a definition of work that is toil, an exertion that is effortful. Whereas “Operate” not only relates in terms of performing the surgical act which might bring about a birth, but in terms of work, defines as bestowing labour upon or directing the working of an operation.

It’s a subtle difference, but one that it easy to instinctively understand as a native English speaker. The challenge is how to express this variation in another tongue.

I think there’s a clue in the other part of the words, “Co-“ and “Col-” as we know, both variants on “Com-“, meaning together, in combination, or union.

The difference we feel between Collaboration and  Co-Operation comes from how we work together, and what it is we are doing. Going back to the analogue of birth, a collaboration brings forth something new, that by definition cannot be created alone – the co-operation comes into play when the time comes for practicalities and deciding who’s going to change the nappies!

There is an implicit equality in collaboration, that doesn’t need to be there to make co-operation work.

It’s not perfect as a way of communicating the difference between the two concepts in English, but for us, it might have to do for now until we can invent a new word to make sense of our concept of Collaboration in each of the new languages we are currently learning more about.





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