10: Building Partnership Capacity

Why Does Attention to Capacity Make a Difference?

It Requires Asking: Do we Have the Capacity to Support our Work? 

Capacity building is not always about staff skills and knowledge. It should be viewed broadly to include resource requirements like personnel, technology, finances, communications and marketing, and the ability to provide products and services. The advantage of a partnership approach is that many of these factors can be jointly provided, so that no single entity bears the full burden of supporting an initiative. It is the responsibility of the intermediary, however, to map the evolving needs of the partnership and to match capacity accordingly. There will be times when needs are unmet, in which case the partnership will need to make decisions about how to add to their ability to carry out their work.

It Establishes the Culture for Sharing Across Partners 

It is easy to assume that employers may struggle to come together in a sector partnership because of their natural inclination to compete with each other. This is often overstated. Employers have convened naturally and in every industry for decades. This is why industry associations exist, for example. Employers recognize the benefit of leveraging expertise, creating a unified voice, and in some cases sharing resources. Some employers even recognize the value of promoting competition for the sake of their own and industry-wide innovation. It is also easy to assume the opposite for the public sector: that they somehow do not harbor competition. This is also a myth. Competition across public systems is often understated, and is an unfortunate reality when funding streams are perceived as uneven or insufficient overall.

To counteract both these myths, the intermediary has a responsibility to establish a culture of information and resource sharing within the partnership. Consider that the process of building your partnership will achieve some of the initial comfort with sharing, and that as the initiative evolves, individual public and private partners will begin to realize that their collective power is significantly more effective and synergistic than trying to achieve similar goals as individual institutions, agencies, or companies. Look for "quick wins" to demonstrate the impact of shared knowledge and resources. For example, if any products or tools are developed that are being successfully utilized by some employer members, ask if they can share with others. Help facilitate the process so that tools are shared without violating propietary information.

Institutionalizing Individual Partner Capacity to Participate Ensures Sustainability 

How many times have you witnessed the success of an initiative or project to be largely dependent on one individual's leadership or involvement? It is typical for one person to become and stay involved because they are personally passionate about the vision and activities. Unfortunately, their passion does not necessarily mean they have fully recruited their peers or colleagues into the work, or that others even fully understand the theory behind the work. As a result, all too often when one individual transitions to another job or leaves a project, that project soon falls apart. For sector initiatives, it is common to hear similar testimony: "When I leave this organization/company/college/(fill in the blank), no one will replace me at the table." To avoid having to build the partnership from scratch, the intermediary should help each partner to develop talking points to bring back to their home office. Your initiative should address this just as any organization effectively addresses succession planning.

Additionally, partnerships should consider utilizing a "situational" or "shared" leadership model. This allows several people within the partnership to play leadership roles throughout the life of the partnership. Depending on the focus of the activities, different players can play a leadership role based on their expertise or area of interest. This situational or shared leadership model provides more buy-in by more partners, and lessens the effect of losing the one individual who had been seen as the sole leader or champion. The development of several "business champions" can also help in lessening the negative impacts of these transitions when leaders leave the partnership.

Staffing and Positioning the Intermediary

Staffing Decisions

Recall that in Chapter 3: Convening and Planning, the role of the intermediary is defined, including their responsibilities to engage employers and other key stakeholders, to coordinate information and resources, and to facilitate the development of effective and appropriate responses to the workforce-related challenges of the industry of focus. In Chapter 8: Maintaining the Partnership, the need to expand staff expertise and capacity is considered, particularly as the partnership expands in size and in scope of influence and activity. This might mean contracting to an industry expert, sharing coordination responsibilities across partners, or developing a cross-partner management team. As the initiative matures further, and as products and services begin to take shape, your initiative may need to add other expertise. Do you have a marketing expert? Do you have needed technological expertise? The expertise may need to come from outside the partnership, but check with partners first. These areas of expertise may already exist within a public or private partner organization or firm.

Becoming the "Go-to Guy"

It is not unusual that the intermediary organization becomes the resident expert for knowledge, information, resources and opportunities related to the needs of the focus industry and for jobseekers and workers in the region. The intermediary does more than just convene partners; they also convene information and resources. Consider that as the initiative evolves, the intermediary will need to build industry and process knowledge; take advantage of labor market information; and be the broker or facilitator for the needs of the industry which may or may not include the workforce system.

In some cases, the intermediary may become the expert that other regions and entities look to for industry-focused solutions to workforce problems. Developing ways to share information, products and tools specific to your industry of focus will market your initiative to a wider audience and will increase the overall impact the partnership has on the industry.

Mechanisms for Shared Learning

Many tools and mechanisms exist to help your partnership maximize its ability to share information and move forward together. These range from the tried-and-true strategies (face-to-face time over a cup of coffee) to the high-tech (blogs and wikis). Just as you were careful to choose the types of products and services created by your partnership, you will want to choose your shared learning tools carefully. Here are some rules of thumb:

  • If you need a place to put information in a clean, marketable, organized and controlled way, develop a simple website
  • If you need your partners to make changes to documents, add their ideas with some freedom, but still in a somewhat organized fashion, try a wiki or related on-line tool
  • If your partners want to be given the critical information without having to work for it, use the traditional e-newsletter or mailing list (Google and Yahoo both offer free mailing list services.)

The employers in your partnership are your industry experts, but sometimes there is value to bringing in additional perspectives. Holding an industry meeting that targets existing and potentially new public and private members can be a way to gain a more solid understanding of the industry's needs, to find fresh ideas, and to inject some energy into the partnership. Bring in outside industry experts, but choose them wisely so as to not overwhelm. Bring in other experts too. For example, your initiative may benefit from learning about the services and knowledge of non-profits in your community. Build an agenda that includes them.

Finally, did you know there's a national association for sector partnerships like yours? The National Network of Sector Partnerships can provide valuable networking and learning opportunities with other sector initiatives around the country.

Chapter 10 Review Questions

  1. Are you able to carry out the scope of work needed to meet the goals of the partnership with what you have now in terms of staff and finances? If not, in what areas are you falling short?
  2. Do you have sufficient technology and communications capacity to effectively share material, decisions and needs across partners?
  3. How are public and private partners contributing to the effort overall?
  4. What areas of expertise are missing from the “table’?
  5. What if key partners left the “table”? Have you considered the implications and your response as a partnership?