When business and education come together

Geoff Roberts tells Phil Preston that businesses and schools need to keep their partnerships fluid or things can go wrong – that's where he comes in.

In this interview we learn about the power that partnering with business can bring to the education sector. Geoff Roberts is a partnership broker with Sydney Business Education Partnerships and his input has been instrumental in the formation of the Forming Effective Partnerships workshop program that I rolled out earlier this year.

Geoff delivers insight and allows us to observe the dynamics at play in the partnering process, especially from the perspective of our high schools.

What does Sydney Business Education Partnerships do?

We identify, develop and help construct partnerships spanning the education, corporate and community sectors. Our footprint is defined by the geographical area of Sydney’s CBD, the Eastern Suburbs, South Sydney and the Inner West.

There is a range of equivalent organisations that collectively perform this role across the whole of Australia. They may be stand-alone entities like ours, or part of larger community services groups.

What is your role in the partnering process?

It is primarily a facilitation role that includes elements of consulting, relationship development, knowledge sharing, capacity building and skill development.

For example, we recently started working with a local high school in a consulting capacity, helping them to identify what strategic partnerships may look and feel like. This included discussions about best practice methodologies.

One of our challenges is to integrate partnering ideas into the school planning process, linking the school’s broader goals with strategies and outcomes.

How good are your clients at constructing partnerships?

They are generally very capable, however there are some gaps that need to be assessed and sharpened up. I find that the raw ingredients are usually good, but one area that needs constant attention is appreciating and understanding the perspectives of other stakeholders in the partnership process.

What have you seen go right?

We played a pivotal role in facilitating a partnership between Australia Post and Randwick Boys’ High School last year that was quite successful and it will be refined and repeated this year. It was designed to give year 10 students exposure to a working environment, including the job application process.

Australia Post was motivated to pursue this partnership in order to develop its "workforce of tomorrow”. The High School not only delivered life skills to its students, it took a step forward in building its own partnering capacity.

What have you seen go wrong?

As a general observation, I’ve seen cases where a lack of understanding about the essential components of partnerships caused problems. The reality of relationships is that the internal and external dynamics are changing all the time, and if you are not prepared for continual adjustment then things can easily fall apart.

So even if the planning and construction parts are done well, if there is no allowance for fluidity and flexibility then the issues that arise start to look daunting or insurmountable and the process gets bogged down.

What are the common barriers and challenges that need to be overcome?

Following on from the previous question, it helps early on to identify the issues that are likely to arise and communicate these to all parties in a concise and effective way. That is where we can help add a lot of value.

How has a focus on effective partnerships helped your clients?

As we saw when we [Sydney BEP and myself] piloted a one-day workshop to help address partnership formation needs, there were many factors they hadn’t been considered. The main one being that most of our community and education sector clients hadn’t scratched the surface in terms of understanding the value that they bring to the table.

There is a fine line between programs, which we would classify as finite and rigid training opportunities, and partnerships, which are longer term and more strategic in nature. They require continual learning, adaptation and revision of scope to be sustainable. The gap between these two approaches is bigger than most people think it is.

What issues do you see schools grappling with?

The common challenge for schools is to engage their students in the learning process, regardless of where they sit in the academic and social spectrum. I suspect that the focus on interventions tailored to high-needs students, which is sound in its intent, may sometimes come at the expense of broader development goals.

If we can increase the awareness of the value that is inherent in strategic partnering then we can improve engagement at all levels. The relationship that a school has with its surrounding community is more complex than one of education services provider; it touches all areas in different ways. Forming an understanding of the value and benefits of effective partnerships is the challenge.

To do this, there needs to be more education about the partnering process and breaking down the ‘language’ barriers that exist between the business, community and education sectors.

How engaged are businesses when they form connections with the community?

There can be a bit of confusion about how partnering activities will fit into time schedules of schools. Schools, by their nature, are very time-oriented and business may require guidance on how to go about it.

Do you expect your clients to materially develop their partnership skills in the coming years?

Yes. I expect schools to develop their capacity to initiate, develop and maintain strategic partnerships. They will do so at their own speed and we will see the usual mix of leaders, fast followers and laggards.

I think we are really just starting to crack open the understanding and awareness piece – we are on the crest of a wave.

I’m excited by the possibilities that we can help create. Imagine not doing it? We would continue to rely on individuals or luck to succeed and about 95 per cent of attempts would be open to failure! We can increase those odds, and the timing is right given the shifting attitudes in the business sector.

How did you come to be doing your role?

I enjoy facilitating social interactions, bringing parties together and dealing with a diverse range of clients.

What's the best experience you've had in your role?

The meetings I’ve had recently with the local high school I mentioned at the start of our interview have been very rewarding. To see people excited in discussions and generating a buzz around them is an experience I enjoy, because I play a role in improving their awareness of what is possible.

Thanks Geoff. You’ve given us some great insight into the partnership broking role and the benefits that we can all gain from the process.

Phil Preston is a social innovator who helps people and businesses engage with their communities for mutually beneficial outcomes. He can be contacted on phil@philpreston.co