Editor's Choice

The Editor’s Choice blog is a monthly review of a top resource or report in inclusive business.  There are so many resources, documents, tools, reports, videos out there, it can be hard to know where to start.  We choose one that we like and tell you why we like it and who else should find it useful.   Until the end of 2017, Editor’s Choice blogs were written by Caroline Ashley as Hub Editor.   Going forward, they are written by a range of guest editors, both from the core team and from beyond.

Editor's Choice March 2016: A practical tool for navigating Partnership Culture

Written by Caroline Ashley
15. Mar 2016

It’s widely assumed that achieving success in executing inclusive business, or indeed delivering the Sustainable Development Goals, requires new partnerships. It’s not so widely recognised that partnering is a skill. It’s a different way of doing business that needs planning, resourcing and a supportive organisational culture.

This month’s Editor’s Choice tackles that issue head on. The Partnership Culture Navigator is a practical guide to help organisations navigate the different organisational cultures they will encounter in partnerships. I am happy to bet that you have experienced a partnership that didn’t work well. I have. I am also happy to bet that in your plans for the next few years, at least one depends on partnering with a different kind of organisation. Mine do. If so, before charging headlong into partnering plans, give yourself half an hour for this guide, to take a step back and think about organisational culture.

The central paradox of cross-sector partnerships is the starting point and raison d’etre of the guide. A primary goal of partnership is to bring together organisations with different but complementary attributes, so as to achieve something that neither can achieve alone. Difference is what creates productive synergy and delivers added value. But difference is also what makes partnering difficult, as diverse organisational cultures try to collaborate. That is why reflecting on organisational culture, and finding ways to adapt, is a near inevitable part of good partnering.

This guide, around 30 pages, is focused on cross-sectoral partnerships, meaning some combination of business, government and civil society organisations working together. It draws on the experience of the World Food Programme and North Star Alliance (a non-profit founded by WPF and TNT Express). But the principles apply to many types of partnership, including those between large businesses and SMEs, or between businesses from different continents and cultures, which can also be crucial to inclusive business strategies.

What is organisational culture? Adapting academic definitions into layman speak it is: ‘a complex web of ideas, values and practices that are both the expression of individual and group behaviour in a specific community and an influence on shaping that behaviour.’ An important point is that in working out how to operate between two different cultures, it becomes important to better understand your own culture, not only your partners’; to work out what the strengths are and what you can change to make the partnership work.

The guide takes you through key issues to consider:

  • Understanding your own organisational culture and that of your partner; being more aware of the differences and their impact;
  • Building an internal culture that is ‘partnership friendly’: being aware, open, flexible and consistent in purpose;
  • Leadership: leaders can’t impose culture change but it will fail without leadership commitment
  • Systems: soft systems that support communication and learning tend to support effective partnerships
  • People: some staff need specific training for the partnership, while all staff need awareness and familiarisation.

The practical examples are good. They might be even better if they covered examples of failure, but we can probably all recall those for ourselves. As I read this, I think with a wry smile of the three years it took a Namibian community and a tourism operator in the mid nineties to negotiate a joint venture lodge, having to adapt two incredibly different decision making cultures to each other. I think of a European company and African NGO, more recently, working out their different institutional approaches to planning and piloting. And I think of the web of organisational partnerships some donor programmes entail to catalyse inclusive business, straddling the commercial and the social goals. No practical guide is going to make these partnerships a piece of cake. But perhaps if the partnership catalysts could hand out guides like this (or a short 2 page summary please TPI?) some processes may go more smoothly (or fail more quickly, which is also a bonus).

The Partnering Initiative, publisher of this guide, has produced a set of resources over the years to support cross-sector partnering. You will find consistency of purpose running throughout the publications and tools. If you are not already familiar with TPI’s core principles of partnership (Equity, Transparency and Mutual Benefit) there is more to browse beyond this Navigator guide.


Further Information:

Editor's choice archive

The Partnering Initiative


Other Hub resources on partnerships:

  • Take your partners: large companies and collaboration in the Business Innovation Facility portfolio, Tom Harrison, Business Innovation Facility
  • Why go it alone? How partnerships can help a company address constraints to inclusive business, Darian Stibbe and Jessica Scholl of The Partnering Initiative

There are also 120 publications about partnerships on SearchInclusiveBusiness.org