The South African education system is faced with many challenges, among them relatively poor educational outcomes, crumbling infrastructure, and overcrowded classrooms. Different stakeholders agree the system needs urgent attention and that change can only happen if relevant actors come together and play their part.
It is against this background that an expert panel discussion at the Trialogue Business in Society Virtual Conference 2020 explored the state of collaboration in the education sector. The discussion focused on ways in which collaboration can be enhanced and become more efficient and sustainable. The session was facilitated by Colleen Magner of Reos Partners.
How can we succeed through collaboration?
The panel began by highlighting the importance of shared objectives. “Collaboration presents opportunities for better understanding of challenges in the education sector, including their scope and depth. However, it is important for actors to begin by developing shared objectives. This creates fertile ground for the alignment of priorities, the exchange of ideas, and ultimately buy-in among partners,” said Kulula Manona from the Department of Basic Education.
Setting clear objectives and establishing a framework for collaboration also provides structure, which in turn promotes efficiency. This was a view put forward by Zanele Twala, CEO of the Standard Bank Tutuwa Community Foundation, who added, “If we have partners supporting us in implementing our agenda in an uncoordinated manner as we’ve seen in the past, we risk a lot of wastage and duplications of efforts.” It is therefore important for collaborators to develop mechanisms for accountability, which will maximise the impact of their efforts.
The panel noted that collaboration is neither simple nor easy. It entails bringing different people, agencies and organisations together. These actors are often in different stages of their own trajectories, with varying viewpoints and ways of doing things. “In initiating and maintaining a collaboration, it’s important to acknowledge that the starting point of one partner or collaborator might be different from the other,” said Godwin Khosa, CEO of the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT).
Linked to this is the idea of trust, and the central role it plays in collaboration. Most organisations will not get into a space where they do not trust that the other player will do what they promise. “We do find that when people feel trusted, and they feel like they can trust you, they are able to share quite openly, but also admit to their shortcomings with an intention, and end up with solutions rather than just being a talk shop,” added Khosa.
However, there needs to be balance between maintaining trust and focusing on the technical aspects that are important to all the collaborators. Over and above building trust-based relationships, it is important for each person and organisation to think about what they bring to the table. Actors also need to be results-oriented and deliver on their commitments. The combination of the two is key to lasting collaboration.
None of the success factors discussed by the panel are feasible without resources. Access to resources is equally important for both NPOs and corporates. Having the right resources in place can help collaborators set objectives, implement activities and assess impact. “You need to allow the time for people to build trust, to find each other, and take risks,” said Twala. In that way, organisations can be at ease in terms of deploying and accounting for their resources.
The power dynamics between funders and NPOs was another important consideration raised during the discussion. NPOs operate in an environment that is constantly changing. This means they need to be flexible and responsive, and develop the tenacity to change course when something is not working. “If you consider our work pre-Covid-19, a lot has changed. Where many NPOs go wrong, is in failing to communicate their challenges and changes with funders, because of uneven power dynamics,” explained Vuyiswa Ncontsa, CEO of BRIDGE. It is therefore important for NPOs to do some internal introspective work, take opportunities to engage with their funders, and be better positioned to adapt to a changing context. This will lead to more meaningful collaboration.
Examples from practice
The National Reading Coalition (NRC) is a collaborative structure that has recently been established by government and NGOs involved in the literary space. Its aim is to coordinate the development and implementation of a comprehensive national reading improvement strategy. The NRC functions as an agile, self-sustaining coalition of reading initiatives. This allows it to focus on the strategic issues needed to drive collaboration among members of the coalition. While different role players are involved in the initiative, the NECT has been identified as the lead organisation in driving the vision of the NRC.
The NECT has a long track record of implementing activities aimed at strengthening partnerships between civil society and government in order to achieve South Africa’s national goals for basic education. Its collaborative network involves government, teacher unions, private sector and civil society. Now in its seventh year, the organisation has learnt some important lessons.
To begin with, experience shows there is broad consensus on the need to improve education, and many stakeholders are willing to play their part to achieve this. Secondly, while actors can have vastly different missions and activities, they all have good reasons to exist. Different issues are important to each of them. It is important to take these differences as a starting point, but also continuously seek points of convergence. “Find common points of interest and promote them in everything that you do with the collaborators,” said Khosa.
Another example of an organisation at the forefront of collaboration in the education sector is BRIDGE. Established by a handful of education experts and activists in 2009, BRIDGE connects stakeholders in education. It does this through convening communities of practice made up of people with common challenges who are passionate about learning. Through this effort, BRIDGE shares knowledge and resources, and contributes to ensuring that people do not work in silos or duplicate some of the mistakes that others might already have made.
Some of BRIDGE’s successes have been the result of collaboration with institutions it would not ordinarily work with. An example is a project funded by the European Union. Through it, BRIDGE partnered with ten tertiary institutions across the country. “When that initiative started, there was very little trust. Other stakeholders had formed judgments and opinions about NGOs. I’m happy to say that, at the end of that process, through each other’s work, through developing that common purpose, through ensuring that we created more enablers than disablers, we were able to achieve an important outcome, which was a qualifications framework for the early childhood development sector,” explained Ncontsa.
Challenges to collaboration
It is true that some organisational cultures do not lend themselves to collaboration. The challenge with government is the bureaucracy. This often makes it difficult for corporates to know where to start in engaging government. Another challenge that creates barriers to collaboration is corporate self-interest. While issues of confidentiality and intellectual property are important, several opportunities exist for corporates to maximise their impact by working with other corporates, while also focusing on building closer relations with government. “There are no legalities around where the Competition Commission can come and challenge us for collusion. There is no collusion in the non-profit space,” said Twala.
The lack of funding and coherent objectives and strategies also present challenges to collaboration, particularly for NPOs and other civil society organisations.
The Covid-19 pandemic has created opportunities for collaboration. Factors such as distance and cost, which have often been reflected as barriers to collaboration, are now much reduced. People in different parts of the country can now collaborate using digital platforms and other technologies.
However, for collaboration to succeed, actors need to understand their different priorities, and focus on building a shared understanding of both the operating context and objectives. Actors also need to be willing to pool resources and different skill sets. This can only happen through trust.
The panel also highlighted the importance of sharing failure. Again, trust is an important prerequisite to this. In sharing failure, organisations can learn from their peers and transcend current ways of working to become more effective.
Image: Colleen Magner, Kulula Manona, Godwin Khosa, Zanele Twala
Article was written by Connie Huma
Photo taken by Janelle Strydom