Published on 2014/01/23
Looking to Institutions for Service Partnerships
Inter-institutional partnerships drive down costs and free up internal resources to devote to the main mission of teaching and learning.

According to an old adage, if you don’t want to lose your horses, just tie them together; they’ll never get anywhere.

That, sadly, is how many experience partnership-building in higher education. But I would argue that it is the lack of underlying structure and coordination that so often creates havoc (or malaise) in partnerships. With such experience, it is no wonder those in higher education often seek commercial or vendor-driven solutions to common problems when institutional-driven partnerships could drive greater innovation and creativity while being more responsive to the needs of the academy. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Research has shown 60 percent of all corporate partnerships fail, and they fail for the same reason that 50 percent of all American marriages fail: poor partner selection, lack of shared vision and lack of common goals.

Research also shows the mere existence of a partnership between two entities increases the chance that those two will enter into repeat partnerships. This suggests a few important steps in establishing partnerships:

Four Steps to Entering into Partnerships

1. Choose your partner(s) carefully

Consider the reputation of the institution at large; the capacity and willingness of the people within the institution to be good partners; the commitment at the administrative level necessary to ensure necessary resources; and the track record of the institution in successful partnerships. Some “partnerships” are founded based solely on institutional reputation with no clear investment at the staff level, while others are established based solely on personal relationships with no clear institutional investment. A little balance goes a long way.

2. Develop clear expectations for performance, investment and timeline

Build in an escape or wind-down clause and a period for evaluation with clear criteria for project success.

3. Establish clear governance and leadership structures

Clarify the chain of command for the new partnership and confirm the commitment of the most senior leaders and their resources.

4. Establish clear and open communications strategies

Don’t just codify outcomes; “over-communicate” the goals, objectives and project milestones with all partners.

Four Reasons to Partner

On the face of it, this may sound more difficult than simply buying a solution from a commercial provider, but the reasons for partnering with other higher education institutions are the same as those that drive corporate partnerships:

1. Leveraging expertise: The partnership allows one entity to buy access to specialized expertise from another

2. Rapid learning: Inter-institutional teams can share and diffuse knowledge and expertise to complete a task

3. Amortizing costs or investments: Multiple partners can invest fewer individual resources, but pooling them creates the necessary infrastructure

4. Creating new knowledge and expertise: In-house knowledge development can drive additional, future innovation either within the individual institution or within the partnership

Where to Partner

What type of services might benefit from a partner-driven approach?  It turns out that it depends. That is, it depends on the situation, the timeline involved, the urgency of the challenge and the availability (or not) of market solutions.

Higher education institutions have many resources that could be reallocated or recalibrated to successfully support inter-institutional partnerships that drive down costs, solve problems more quickly and free more funds and staff to devote to the core mission of teaching and learning.

While purchasing services from a vendor makes excellent business sense in many cases, true partnerships between universities — aimed at providing solutions unique to higher education — can result in greater innovation, the development of greater expertise among the partners and the development of solutions truly responsive to the academy.

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Readers Comments

Skepitcal 2014/01/23 at 2:59 pm

I guess I see your point, that all institutions are focused on student success, therefore partnering with another university means your priorities won’t be misaligned.

That said, I would think you want to partner with an organization whose priority is making sure your school has best-in-claass services, whatever that service may be.

Yvonne Laperriere 2014/01/23 at 3:50 pm

To add to Allen’s advice, I would say: don’t sign the contract until you’ve gone through the terms and are positive you’re okay with all of them. It’s a painstaking but necessary process to protect your interests. As Allen says, clarity is key to making a partnership work. Unfortunately, most contracts aren’t written in a clear, simple way.

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