Collaboration between government, civil society and the corporate sector is imperative for meaningful, large-scale and sustainable social development. However, collaboration can be tricky to realise and often presents many challenges.
A breakout session at The Trialogue Business in Society Conference 2018, facilitated by Colleen Magner, Managing Director of Reos Partners South Africa, and featuring expertise from Godwin Khosa, CEO of the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT), and Andrew Boraine, CEO of the Western Cape Economic Development Partnership (WCEDP), invited delegates to share some of their most significant lessons and recurring challenges in collaboration.
Issues raised ranged from how to convene multi-stakeholder partnerships and drive collaboration, to the impact that identity politics has on collaboration.
Asked about the art of multi-stakeholder convening, Khosa explained that the first step was for credible drivers to invite relevant stakeholders to a well-managed initial dialogue aimed at establishing a functional degree of consensus between partners. NECT, Khosa explained, was conceived as a collaboration between multiple stakeholders from government, civil society and the private sector. While informed by a coherent theory of change, the collaboration process revealed stakeholders’ diverse thoughts and agendas which first needed to be overcome in order to achieve consensus.
Boraine agreed, further emphasising the importance of facilitation by a neutral intermediary – especially if the collaboration is birthed in difficult terrain, where trust is low and conflict is high. Also crucial, particularly when working with the public sector, is the need to invite operational authorities. Boraine said that while high-level discussions may be conducted at a mayoral or ministerial level, those discussions mean little without the authorisation of the middle-level operatives, whose opposition could prematurely halt a project.
Leadership in collaboration
Partnerships require a culture of collaborative leadership, rather than ‘command-and-control’ structures. Boraine listed four collaborative leadership qualities that are essential for partnership to succeed:
- Emotional intelligence and self-awareness enables partners to understand themselves and to use that knowledge to deal with identity issues – from race and gender, to class.
- Self-management, in a non-hierarchical environment, allows partners to be able to act with initiative and to take risks, without waiting for instruction from a higher authority.
- Social awareness guides a collaborative to a greater understanding that people, disciplines, communities and language differ beyond their own frames of reference.
- Relationship management and the understanding that partnerships start with relationships, rather than projects, is important to prevent projects from faltering.
Managing expectations and agreeing on a focused approach
The next phase is to gather input from all stakeholders. “In NECT’s case, one of the major challenges was to manage conflicting expectations,” said Khosa. During this phase, independent experts conducted a series of theory workshops, designed to distil many ideas, assuage egos, resolve bureaucracy, and address deeply held fears among stakeholder groups. Aligned with this point, Boraine emphasised the importance of focus: “Partnerships don’t work when everyone is trying to do too many things.” Being clear about the approach, whether area-based, or issue-based, will help the parties to understand joint activities and objectives.
Responding to an issue raised about identity politics in collaborative partnerships, Magner said that: “If we don’t talk about identity politics, particularly in South Africa, we can be held back.” In partnership discussions, it is important to establish a place for learning and reflection. This mechanism helps stakeholders to make visible not only their identity labels, such as the sector they represent, but also their own perception of where their power lies. Doing so removes the fear of expressing their identity and makes real and perceived power — both of which directly influence a partner’s contribution — more explicit.
Measuring impact and continuous learning
According to Boraine, partnerships or dialogue processes require baseline measurements with seven attributes: joint activities; shared objectives; resource distribution; joint communications; agreed governance structures; shared technology and systems, and collaborative leadership and organisational culture.
The partnership is only one part of system change, explained Boraine. The most important part is the process of learning and adjusting the strategy continuously.
Written by Hilary Alexander, edited by Zyaan Davids
IMAGE: Fltr: Colleen Magner (Reos Partners South Africa), Godwin Khosa (NECT) and Andrew Boraine (WCEDP)
Image © Brett Eloff