In business, education and healthcare, forming partnerships and collaborations has become a key strategy for achieving organizational objectives. Each organization hopes to make its own endeavors more successful by harnessing the power, prestige, market share and ideas of a trusted collaborator.
There is ample evidence that a networked approach to solving problems — particularly, social problems — can be more effective than when individual organizations go it alone. The problem is that we often make the mistake of thinking that collaborations are about people. While good relationships between individuals undeniably make cross-organizational collaboration more enjoyable on a day-to-day basis, relationships are also about the organizations that agree to collaborate. What stakeholders often overlook, however, is the critical role that data play in such relationships. Why are data so important? Data matter because they tell the story of impact, and they also let you circumscribe success. If a partnership aims to increase students’ enjoyment of math through a particular intervention, then success will be measured in terms of student happiness. Success will have nothing to do with, for instance, actually learning math.
What Do We Mean By “Data”?
As a general concept, “data” encompass many potential types of information, from direct numerical measurements, such as weights, time intervals or simple counts, to measurements that start out as qualitative but are transformed into quantitative data for ease of reporting or further analysis (e.g., satisfaction scores) One of the problems with defining data in the context of organizational partnerships is that from a research standpoint, it is close to impossible to isolate the effect of a partnership on specific outcomes. This is because the partnering organizations both perform other actions outside of their partnership, making it difficult to untangle what “made the difference.” It’s also because organizations and their partnerships do not exist in vacuums — external forces, such as political events, public policy decisions, environmental factors or financial changes, can also influence the outcomes of cross-organizational collaboration.
What Do We Mean By “Success”?
Partnerships are also difficult because it is difficult to know what to measure and why — what does success look like? Partnerships often begin with a shared interest in addressing a topic of mutual consequence and with the thought that pooling resources means greater overall efficiency. However, collaborating organizations often neglect to specify a precise definition and/or an agreed-upon definition of what they are are trying to improve and often fail to include parameters regarding how much change, and over what time period, they are seeking the change. Lastly, fearing that they will taint the relationship, organizations can be reluctant to demarcate conditions that would lead to terminating the partnership. A commitment to good data begins with a commitment to clear goals for the partnership. Simply put: what counts as data depends on what an organization wants to know and what changes it wants to effect.
In order to examine a real-world example of data and outcomes in an educational partnership, I sat down with my research assistant, Cat McManus, a newly minted EdD from the Educational Leadership Program at Penn GSE, to discuss her dissertation, which focused on the motivations driving the admissions offices of traditional, nonprofit, four-year, undergraduate-focused colleges and universities to seek out and maintain relationships with nonprofit college access organizations. Cat wanted to know what kinds of concerns the colleges were trying to address with these relationships, what variables they were accounting for and what bets they were hedging. Were the colleges hoping to learn from nonprofits? Were they trying to find a more efficient way of recruiting in the context of unsettling demographic changes? Or perhaps, were they trying to do both?
Cat discovered that most colleges wanted to partner with nonprofits primarily to increase their audience of potential students to recruit. In general, the institutional representatives interviewed in the study (admissions officers as well as university presidents) described their relationships with nonprofits as loose linkages requiring both time and money (e.g., more dollars spent on attending events over-and-above what they would normally do, more dollars spent on student scholarships). They understood a college access organization as any and all entities that provided resources that supported college going behaviors. What was striking, however, was how few of the colleges in Cat’s study actually measured any inputs or results associated with their ties to non-profits. Of the 18 institutions in Cat’s sample that had relationships with non-profits, only seven had established Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) or contracts of any kind that delineated each party’s responsibilities. An entity cannot claim that a partnership is about efficiency if nothing is being measured! At best, such a relationship is window-dressing, an attempt at improving appearances, or a play for increased legitimacy.
Human Relationships Can Undermine Organizational Ones
One of the most interesting themes to emerge from Cat’s research was the idea that personal ties were so important that they could ultimately undermine good organizational relationships in several ways. For example, one admission officer had such a strong relationship to an individual at a nonprofit college access organization that when the latter left the nonprofit for a new job, the admission officer’s strong ties migrated to the new organization. In other cases, the failure of representatives from each organization to connect on a personal level led to a missed opportunity for their organizations to add value to one another’s work.
Moreover, colleges that had productive relationships with nonprofits put in place contracts and agreements that clearly laid out each entity’s responsibility, irrespective of the person who held the title of “relationship manager” or the like. They also did regular reviews of these contracts to see if they made sense in the changing landscape of college admissions and whether certain parameters should be amended or jettisoned. Successful institutions had clear goals and expectations that differed for each partnering non-profit and which took into account nonprofits’ constituent groups, their reach and scope and the unique strengths and capacities they offered.
Lessons Learned: Data Are King!
An entity that doesn’t collect data is simply paying lip service to the idea of impact. An entity that doesn’t demand good data from its potential (and existing) partners is tantamount to the same: lip service instead of real commitment to change-making, however difficult it may be.
- If you want good partners, present good data, or have a clear plan for what data you deem “good” and how you will get it.
- If you want to be a good partner, be clear and concrete about what each party brings to the table and why it is important to the end goal.
- Organizational partnerships begin with people…
- But without safeguards (e.g., plans to collect, analyze, and act on data) to make organizational relationships transcend the human element, we risk undermining the ability of organizations to make an impact in the most pressing problems of our day.