By Tom Harrison, TPI Associate
When we started to implement the Business Innovation Facility (BIF), a programme funded by DFID and managed by an alliance including TPI, I was among many who thought that supporting companies to partner would be central to what unfolded over the three years of the pilot. DFID thought the same: in the contract notice partnering appeared in two of the three purpose statement for BIF.
As we started to talk to companies and develop our pipeline of projects, we didn’t see partnership emerging as a strong theme. We held a number of workshops on partnership using TPI associates and material, all of which were very well received, both by those from the private sector and also from NGOs and other organisations that were keen to collaborate with companies. Despite this, a feeling developed that perhaps partnership is not as important to the development of inclusive business as we had thought.
Now that we have the luxury of being able to review the whole BIF portfolio, I can see we were right and wrong to have this feeling. Right, because the there are few projects where we were asked to deploy consultants with ‘partnering skills’ as their prime area of expertise. Wrong, because there is a wide variety of different kinds of collaboration in many of the projects. This is particularly evident in our projects in support of large companies.
I have now written up these findings in a BIF publication, ‘Take your partners: large companies and collaboration in the Business Innovation Facility portfolio’, that is now available. We have also published a new checklist on partnership and inclusive business jointly with TPI. I believe that these papers make a strong case for the important role that partnership plays for companies as they develop innovative markets and business models that meet the needs of poor people.
I am happy to have such answers to hand now. It wasn’t the case a month or two ago, when I began to wonder what on earth I would be able to write about the BIF experience of partnership. Everywhere I looked across the portfolio I could see companies partnering as they progressed their inclusive business projects, but I was dazzled by the sheer variety of these collaborations. My notes were awash with tables, diagrams, figures and charts with no clear lessons emerging except that companies in this space clearly aren’t doing IB projects on their own.
Around that time, I spent a day with colleagues from the Partnership Brokers Association. As we compared our diverse experiences of facilitating the process of collaboration between organisations from the private, public and not-for-profit sectors, we reflected that we often found ourselves promoting collaboration between unusual partners for the benefits we have seen it can bring, whilst not always having the evidence for this as readily to hand as we would wish. For example, we think that cross-sector partnership can lead to creative problem solving and innovation. We also know – but find it hard to evidence – that a particular style of quiet, and often invisible, facilitation (which we call ‘partnership brokering’) can be vital to the success of complex collaborations. We challenged ourselves to try harder to ‘find the evidence’ for what we know from our experience.
I looked again at the material I had from the BIF portfolio with this challenge in mind. My attention was also drawn to the differences between creating a new market for the BOP, and making markets where there were already BOP interests work better. Looking at my data through this lens revealed that there did indeed seem to be a clustering between companies that were engaged in market creation, and the most active partnering activity. This suggested to me companies could be partnering in order to support the innovation that is required when a new BOP market is being created. I decided to look in greater depth at three relevant project in the BIF portfolio. As I share in the Insider, emerging from these projects I can trace the link between partnering, and the need to create new ways of working.
In an interview I conducted with a manager of one of the companies concerned, she was sighing about the challenges that were emerging as the company begins to grapple with this new way of working. ‘Managing this project,’ she explained, ‘is like choreographing a dance when the music has already started, the dancers don’t know the steps and new dancers keep joining all the time.’
I realised then that I had evidence for a link between the use of partnerships for innovation, and the challenges, in practice, of collaboration. I also found the title for my Insider. So….for those of you who need to collaborate to realise your inclusive business objectives: ‘Take your partners!’
- Inside partnerships: Looking back on three years of BIF projects, Tom Harrison analyses the importance of partnerships in inclusive business and the reasons companies engage in them. Find out why they are particularly important to large companies and MNCs, and what kinds of partnerships fit different business models in this new Insider and accompanying blog.
- Partnering Checklist: Also published this month, jointly between BIF and The Partnering Initiative, a short partnerships checklist walks you through key questions for developing successful partnerships for inclusive business. TPI Director Darian Stibbe introduces the checklist with valuable insights on the need for partnerships and examples of successful partnerships on the ground.
This blog piece originally appeared on http://businessinnovationfacility.org/