“Collaboration” enters the English language in the latter half of the nineteenth century, from French. The OED notes that the word applies especially to literary, artistic and scientific work.
The spike in usage during and immediately after the Second World War comes as no surprise. In a second French import, the words “collaborate,” “collaborator,” and “collaboration” figure prominently in accounts of quislingism or collusion with the authorities and occupying forces.
But what explains the surge in usage from the mid-1980s on? Nothing very French at all. Instead, during this period, the American business world rehabilitates the word.
The word “collaboration” has now shed many of its sinister associations, and it’s become so commonplace that we no longer consider it pretentious or even wrongheaded to elevate the doings of the workplace to a level of human achievement and excellence formerly reserved for intellectual and artistic endeavor.
In the process, we have lost sight of just how rare, intellectually trying and emotionally fraught truly collaborative work can be.
The special working relationships forged by composers and librettists, scientists and illustrators, dancers and musicians, writers and photographers, etc., are usually not made to last; but while they last, they offer collaborators a chance to accomplish something that they could never accomplish if left to themselves.
Now, however, we are regularly asked to believe that collaboration can be something people do every day, on the job. How is that going to happen?
You obviously can’t mandate collaboration: “’lets force people to collaborate.’ Sounds really dumb, doesn’t it?” business consultant Daniel Mezick asked just the other day. Dumb — or downright totalitarian. It’s equally senseless to expect collaborative behavior where people are getting bossed around, or promote collaboration while leaving powers of command and organizational hierarchy intact.
Misguided efforts to institutionalize collaboration can also crush creative resistance and penalize rule-breaking — the very essence of successful collaboration — or at least reign in and stifle creative individuals who excel when they disregard protocol and go it alone.
The appropriation of the word (while not surprising in and of itself) reinforces the notion that business is by its nature a consumptive process. An artistic collaboration trades productivity or effectiveness for the chance of achieving transcendence, but that could never be tolerated in a business environment. Only by co-opting the term and restricting its meaning can business maintain its identity as an innovative process while protecting itself from radical change.