How to work with business partners

5 Oct 12
To survive and thrive in a harsh climate, public bodies need to nurture a sense of shared purpose with other sectors, which means adopting growth-friendly business practices and ensuring relationships bed in properly, says Phil Copestake

By Phil Copestake | 1 October 2012

To survive and thrive in a harsh climate, public bodies need to nurture a sense of shared purpose with other sectors, which means adopting growth-friendly business practices and ensuring relationships bed in properly, says Phil Copestake

Business Partners, Illustrator: Nathalie Wood

Today’s tough economic climate means public sector managers have to work even more closely with private companies, charities and third-sector providers.

Some of these relationships reflect genuine partnerships — where a coalition of organisations from different sectors agrees to work together for a common aim. But many resemble loose groupings of fundamentally self-interested parties that refuse to divert from established ways of working, even though this is essential to achieve genuine cross-sector partnerships.

At the Office for Public Management, we have found that business partners often display high levels of frustration. They perceive public sector working practices as slow and bureaucratic, with meetings longer, more formal and apparently less productive than the kind of rapid and continual conversation common in private businesses.

Participants from the voluntary sector, on the other hand, see the public sector as controlling and domineering — an attitude born out of the days when voluntary organisations were almost exclusively dependent on councils for funding, and thus had their performance monitored like other ‘contractors’.

Of course, public sector organisations need to ensure that

public sector values – such as good governance and value for money – underpin the work they do. But slowness of response, overly officious management and bureaucratic processes are often unnecessary, and should be changed.

Below are ten tips for more effective working with private and voluntary partners.

1. Find shared purpose
Not all businesses or voluntary and community organisations share values with the public sector – but many do. Charities and social enterprises can be as passionate about achieving social value as public sector bodies. Finding the organisations that want to develop new thinking and improve social results requires different sorts of procurement and a shared commitment to improving user value, rather than just keeping public sector costs down. The commissioning process can be shaped to build in social value at the very outset.

2. Build trust and understanding
For any partnership to be successful, it’s vital for each of the parties to trust and respect each other. To ensure collaboration is as harmonious as possible, public sector managers should eradicate any feelings of resentment or suspicions of inefficiency. Learning to understand how other people think can be incredibly fruitful. Observe how partners do things, and then explore the differences in a constructive way. Acknowledge from the outset that there is likely to be a ‘bedding in’ period in which new business partners adapt to each other’s styles.

3. Talk informally outside meetings
Most of the important relationship-building work goes on behind the scenes and between meetings. Informal conversations and telephone calls can slowly build a shared understanding and a commitment to action. By taking time to speak to colleagues on a one-to-one basis outside of formal settings, you can establish common ground, as well as build trust and appreciation of different viewpoints.

4. Get timing right
Each partner will come to the table with his or her organisation’s strategic priorities at the forefront of their mind. If you try to impose an additional layer of ‘partnership goals’ on top of these, you’re liable to see lip service paid to them at best. Instead, take time to understand the individual priorities of each partner, and look for the right time to build consensus by identifying areas of genuine overlap.

5. Make meetings less formal
Treat meetings with private and voluntary sector providers less formally, and try to think of them as more like working discussions. Try not to fall into the trap of  ‘talking shop’ or becoming over-reliant on presentations. Instead, make use of the different experience, perspectives and talents in the room by working through ideas.

6. Reduce bureaucracy
The best ideas come through a process of exploration and examination – so it is important to create the conditions of trust within which challenges are experienced as exhilarating and positive. For public bodies, this means shrugging off bureaucracy and responding flexibly and positively to new proposals. If public sector bodies learn to respond quickly to private, voluntary and community sector ideas, these innovations are far more likely to flourish.

7. Kill off the internal committee cycle 
Many public sector bodies have a default cycle of meetings every six to eight weeks. This protracted and rigid committee-style approach slows down effective working with private and voluntary sector colleagues who operate on a much faster timetable. If an issue is important, then treat it as such, and continue to talk until it is resolved. Don’t just put it on the agenda for next time.

8. Work as a team — not as competitors
Share knowledge, share expertise, share responsibilities and share credit. Remember that partnership working is exactly that – a partnership. You need to ensure your organisation treats its partners as team members, not competitors. But be wary of using the partnership structure as an excuse to avoid accountability.

9. Keep your team lean
Try to ensure that only those who are absolutely essential are involved in the decision-making process. While there might be wisdom in crowds, there is precious little urgency. Only establish working groups and sub-committees that are absolutely necessary to get the job done. And once sub-groups have done their job, disband them. Attendance levels for all meetings – and enthusiasm in general – will diminish quickly if people feel they’re only meeting for the sake of it. 

10. View partnerships as a learning opportunity
Working closely with non-public sector bodies can be daunting. But try to view new experiences and different working practices as an informative process. Partners work best together when they transfer skills and knowledge from one domain to another.


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