By Katie Fry Hester, Senior Associate, The Partnering Initiative
Solving today’s complex sustainable development challenges requires multi-sector collaboration and an all-of-society approach. However, whilst such shared value partnerships (simultaneously achieving business and societal benefits) are often hailed as “the answer,” practitioners can find them challenging and at times frustrating. One of the most widespread hidden barriers is a lack of internal institutional capacity for partnering.
How ‘fit’ is your organization to partner effectively?
Does your organization have a solid partnership strategy and proactive executive leadership? Do your management systems facilitate (or hinder) partnerships? Do staff have the capacity to participate effectively in partnerships and are they operating in a culture conducive to partnering? The answer to these questions is often “partially”, or “not at all” which means partnerships can get bogged down in both process and politics, wasting time and resources, and leading to sub-optimal decision-making and impact.
Recent research conducted by The Partnering Initiative (TPI), provides a glimpse into how organizations are‘re-engineering’ and ‘retooling’ to make the partnering process “business as usual.” The Fit for Partnering Framework assesses institutional capacity for partnering. What are the challenges and organizations face and how are they investing to build this capacity? (Read on and join the September 16 webinar to learn more).
Increasingly organizations are integrating or developing stand-alone partnering strategy(s) (at the global, regional, or programmatic level). TechnoServe’s 5-year strategic plan emphasizes expanding corporate and public-private partnerships to help increase the scale and sustainability of its impact. By incorporating input from all levels of the organization, including the Board of Directors, TechnoServe has integrated this strategy throughout its global operations and will continue to invest in developing innovative partnership models worldwide. TPI’s research suggests that two of the most common strategic challenges are prioritizing partnership opportunities and finding the necessary budgets to support partnerships. For the US Air Force, prioritization includes a strong focus on the business case, for example the United States Air Force Community Partnership Initiative ‘was created to explore cost-saving opportunities through partnerships and shared services with local communities and the private sector’ The Initiative is continuing to grow, based on success at 15 installations. For example, an agreement between the Robins Air Force Base (Georgai) health clinic and the regional healthcare entities will save Robins about $15,000 per year on continuing medical education.   IKEA is undertaking a similar analysis, learning from existing partnerships to create an effective partnership strategy.
Clear management systems provide a safe environment in which partnerships can flourish and participating organizations can focus on the innovation and impact of co-creative processes rather
than red tape from outdated internal processes. TPI research showed that overall management processes for partnerships are stronger when contracts and funding are involved. However, one of the main issues was the tension between management goals at headquarters and local implementation. The International Rescue Committee has addressed this problem by creating the role of Senior Advisor for Partnership Strategy, to help coordinate partnerships with local actors and develop guidance for more inclusive and deliberate decision making. However, some corporations felt that there was an overload of procedures and processes, and have taken the approach of integrating partnership management into existing systems.
For anyone who has been involved in partnerships it is no surprise that individual people are the heart and soul of partnerships. In order to participate effectively, they need a basic understanding of key processes, tools and skills. Too often organizations assume that individuals naturally have the competencies to partner effectively. However, TPI estimates that only around 20% of people are naturally extremely good at partnering, another 20% of people simply cannot and will never be able to work that way, and the remaining 60% or so can significantly improve their partnering ability through training, coaching and peer support. While ‘organizational structure and silo thinking’ can inhibit the effective dissemination of the partnering knowledge within some businesses, others are investing in developing their capacity. For example, a global healthcare company is planning ‘master classes’ in stakeholder engagement and partnerships. This reflects a move, in the private sector generally, to deliver partnering capacity building alongside other business training.
So how does an organization’s culture impact its ability to sustain effective partnerships? Organizations that have historically operated using transactional relationships find it hard to relinquish control and are resistant to change; especially without the stimulus of a high profile success or failure. For others while “humility isn’t the natural currency of most big organizations, there is a genuine recognition that the organization can’t go it alone.” The research identified a number of key elements conducive to an effective partnering culture: humility, equity, transparency and adaptability.
In conclusion, the key question is how fit is your organization for partnering? Try the free self assessment here. For more information or to attend TPI’s Fit For Partnering (FFP) Webinar which will look at current research in more depth and provide you with more information on the FFP Action research programme, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. The webinar will take place on 16th September 2013 at 15.00 (BST)/ 10.00 (EST).
 Respondent to Spring 2013 Fit for Partnering Self Assessment Survey