Published on 2014/01/16

Communication Critical for a Successful Partnership

Communication Critical for a Successful Partnership
Through effective communication, service providers can help overcome some of the roadblocks that stand in the way of mutually beneficial partnerships.
No man is an island, Entire of itself” – John Donne.

A dependency upon relationships is just as true for the survival of organizations as it is for the individuals involved. Institutions typically originate because of a purpose that extends beyond their own continued existence. The interactions with their community — whether local or global, physical or virtual — depend on some level of partnering with the people or other organizations involved. While partnerships between higher education institutions and vendors are numerous and necessary, there are too many examples of frustration and failure. Why are truly successful partnerships so difficult to achieve and maintain?

Over the last 30 years, I have had the opportunity to be involved in such partnerships from a variety of perspectives:

  • Part of an organization wanting to provide opportunities for students to gain experience;
  • A faculty member wanting to develop research activities;
  • An administrator trying to manage expectations and commitments; and
  • Part of a vendor team working to provide enterprise solutions.

These experiences have given me the opportunity to see what challenges exist for vendors in forming successful partnerships with higher education institutions. Not surprisingly, miscommunication along some parameter is often an issue. There are some basic questions that should be answered similarly by the parties involved. This is not about how to draw up good contracts, but it is about thinking through how things will work best. For the purposes of this article, we are not considering a simple purchase transaction (although the principles still apply), but instead looking at an ongoing partnership with a purpose.

What are we trying to do?

It is not likely, necessary or perhaps even desirable for the vendor and the institution to have the same goals; the two entities exist for different reasons. However, they should have goals that are compatible. Furthermore, everyone should know why a particular partnership makes sense for both parties. Each side needs to know why partnering makes sense for them, but also why it makes sense for the other.

The more closely aligned and mutually supportive the goals are, the more easily trust will be extended. Trust is an essential component of any successful relationship.

What is each side going to provide?

Although it would seem to be self-evident, everyone needs to know what needs to be done and who will be doing it. The level of formality needed is directly related to the criticality and/or risks involved.

Who makes which decisions?

This can also be viewed as, “Who is in charge of what?” Since decision making in higher education institutions often involves committees and review processes, it can be challenging for vendors to understand the path and the “power centers” involved in arriving at a final determination. This also makes clear as to how questions and disagreements will be resolved.

What else do I need to know?

Every partnership has a dynamic context that requires a two-way information flow. For example, if the vendor is aware of factors influencing the institution (e.g. budget pressures), they can be included in considerations. Similarly, if the institution is kept aware of development and marketing activities and plans, it is easier for them to plan.


Recognition of these communication challenges and needs can be the first step toward resolving some of these problems, but the wiser course of action is to take specific steps to avoid or mitigate risks.

In the midst of a challenging negotiation to develop a large collaborative enterprise with a foreign government, an attorney told me that, “If both sides want this partnership to work, and you behave as if you want it to work, it will work.”

I think she was right.

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Readers Comments

Frank Gowen 2014/01/16 at 10:20 am

This is quite a good piece exploring the role of communication in partnership development. I think one area where many institutions fall short is in internal communications, to achieve buy-in from staff and faculty. Communication goes a long way in obtaining the trust of those working at the institution, who may have concerns about their responsibilities or even their job security being impacted by a partnership. Unfortunately, these “stakeholders,” to borrow a term from the business world, are often shut out of conversations. It’s no surprise, then, when they show resistance to any third-party service the administration chooses to adopt.

Helen C 2014/01/16 at 4:42 pm

I would add that an important aspect of communication is doing it regularly. That means engaging in periodic reviews of how the partnership is working out. At the review period, both parties should have a chance to indicate what’s worked well for them, air grievances and discuss next steps. It’s almost always the case that one party’s priorities/objectives have changed, even if only by a little, and it’s vital to bring that into the discussion so the partnership continues to be beneficial to both sides.

Kelly Tibbit 2014/01/16 at 9:03 pm

Excellent article on the elements of creating a successful partnership. One role that institutions should consider, if they have not already done so, is that of a relationship manager. This is a staff member who can act as a go-between for the parties, facilitate negotiations (not on the main partnership contract, but on day-to-day, operational issues) and resolve problems. This person should understand the unique context of each partner and be seen to provide sound, fair advice. In institutions with many partnerships, or large ones servicing critical functions, there should be a different relationship manager for each contract.

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