Swimming With Sharks: Don’t Let Fears Limit Your Collaborations

Learning Ecosystems and Leadership June 20, 2016

I am privileged to live next to one of the most beautiful beaches in South Africa. However False Bay is also home to one of the biggest and most ‘active’ populations of Great White sharks in the world. So no matter how welcoming the azure sea is on a hot day, I will not even get a toe wet. I’m limited by my fears…

Anyone working in education for any length of time, especially in a developing world context, realises that the problems are too intransigent or complex for any one role player to solve. It’s only by forming ‘coalitions’ that we have a hope of winning the war. Sadly, many education NGOs, social enterprises or key role players are often limited by their fears when it comes to entering into collaborations. These stakeholders have been put off by the odd experience of a collaboration with a ‘shark’ or even just a second-hand report of such an experience. This negative experience is used to justify never again ‘dipping a toe’ into a collaborative partnership.

There are so many organisations who have innovative, impacting and sustainable solutions to specific barriers facing ‘quality education for all’. However, we all know that the education world is a complex ecosystem where the success of a single focus solution can often be negated by contextual problems outside the scope of that solution. It doesn’t matter how demonstrably brilliant an EdTech solution is, if the learners are coming to school hungry or have traumatic home circumstances. But equally it is not just enough to feed to children, we need to equip them to succeed. Partnerships are a non-negotiable if we really want to change the futures of children. 

We have to get to a place where our collective desire to see wholescale change overcomes our fears of people stealing our ideas, connections, donors/investors or even glory! Education is a big space, there is enough chances/work for everyone for a lifetime. We have to realise the sum of our efforts is exponentially bigger than any individual success.

We need a paradigm shift so that a truly holistic, multi-player approach is the norm in the education space. The first question any stakeholder embarking on a new initiative should be asked is “Who are your partners for this venture/program?” 

There are organisations that promote and highlight collaborations amongst diverse role players like WISE and CEI to name two. Their work in encouraging vibrant, global networks is a vital piece of the collaboration jigsaw. We can’t collaborate if we don’t know what other organisations are doing in different, but complimentary fields. 

To me a partnership should include an overall long term impact, to which each partner contributes to complimentary but individually distinctive shorter term impacts. It helps if there is common ethos with respect to the nature of implementation of any practices/interventions. Most importantly, as in any relationship, there needs to be trust and commitment between partners! This is not meant to be a prescriptive formula but these key confluences of intention and focus form a necessary foundation for productive collaboration.

On a summer day in False Bay, the beach is full of surfers and swimmers taking full advantage of the crisp, clear waters. The fact that there is most probably the odd shark swimming somewhere in the depths doesn’t stop them. It’s time for education players to get wet, swim despite the sharks and collaborate!