What we have learnt about partnerships over the years

September 30, 2020

As an open-source Global Goods product, the vision behind OpenSRP is to help resource-constrained health systems reach their constituencies and achieve equitable access to healthcare. As OpenSRP’s technical steward for the past seven years, Ona has seen the tool grow from a research pilot to being actively implemented in more than 15 countries and used by over 26,000 health workers.

This would not have been possible without embracing collaboration and working with countless partners to fund, build, implement, and maintain the platform. In our work, partnerships with local technical collaborators are vital for the ongoing success by establishing an experienced team to maintain and update the platform after Ona’s contract concludes. Sometimes we are presented with a Ministry of Health or a donor’s preferred partner to work to implement in the field, and other times we are tasked to help find suitable partners that can help us to fulfill this role. In this article, we will share a few key learnings on successfully establishing these types of ICT4D partnerships.

Find a communication strategy that works best for your partners

Effective communication is a topic that comes up in every business and project. Nowhere is it more difficult to “get right” than the large implementing consortiums common in the global health space. We’re often one of many in a diverse group including Ministry of Health officials, local implementers, international NGOs, funders, and technology teams. We learnt quickly that a “one size fits all” approach often does not work to achieve the needed effort, expertise, and buy-in from all partners to solve the world’s toughest health challenges.

In many ways, it reminds me of online dating, where you would find some people are really short, to-the-point, and even offish when you are chatting online, but then when you meet face-to-face they are actually extroverted, talkative people. (Perhaps they cannot type fast enough — who knows?) Others are quite the opposite. The point being: even if something’s working with one partner, you might need to adjust what you’re doing for someone else.

On some projects, we’ve had people skip consortium meetings. We’ve invited partners to an agreed meeting slot — sending reminders like “Please remember to join our meeting tomorrow at 1pm” — and yet, they do not attend. How do you then move the project forward if one critical partner is missing from important conversations?

It turns out trying to streamline communication in a single group has the same pitfalls as treating dates the same — it doesn’t work for everyone. Instead, we’ve employed separate one-on-one meetings and different modes of communication, such as WhatsApp conversations or Slack workspaces to great success. When working in multi-partner consortiums, it’s something we’ve had to adjust to: 1) be more open from the onset, 2) seek the best type or mode of communication for your unique set of partners, and 3) do so from the very first meeting.

Mentally prepare for curveballs and give them a chance

A good friend and ex-colleague of mine used to say when something went majorly wrong in one of her projects: “Marcha, something fascinating just happened”. It used to make me laugh, and I kept wondering, how can she, in times of such utter crisis, be so calm and call this “fascinating”?

There is a massive lesson in here: sometimes the curveballs in our projects — the things we could not foresee even with months of scenario planning, risk assessments and mitigation strategies — can be turned into something fascinating and actually for the ultimate good of the project.

In a recent OpenSRP deployment, one such curveball was the unexpected need to merge different versions (developed by different partner consortia) of the same application into one coherent solution. Our knee-jerk reaction was “Wait, this is not in our scope and it’s way too late in the game”. After taking a moment, we thought about it and it was clear each partner felt this was a decision about the overall project success and not about the success of one or the other partner consortia. We realized getting to the desired end-goal does not always mean walking in a straight line from point A to point B.

In hindsight, we can say that the curveball in the above project was actually a fascinating opportunity. When we look back, we think: “We went through it, we made it, and ultimately, the project is better off as a result of it”. Sometimes, these curveballs are just curves in the road, and while they seem like distractions at the time, they can make not only our partnerships stronger, but also enhance the impact we are all working towards.

Yes, sometimes you have to call it a day

This was the hardest lesson to write because it feels like a rejection of the idea that successful partnerships are always possible and just need additional investment. However, ultimately some partnerships aren’t the right fit and the best thing you can do is be decisive and find a new partner.

To draw from another online dating analogy: sometimes you chat online for some time, and all seems well and then you finally build up the courage and ask them out for a face-to-face date. But, on the date, for some reason, the spark is just not there. Working with local implementers and technical partners can follow the same path. You can have a partner that, on paper, is the perfect match for your project. You go through a lengthy screening process, make a selection and formally contract them, define a scope and match that to their technical skill sets, and then onboard and train them. At this point you can be confident you know this partner really well. But then, things can happen that make you realise that the partnership is not right for the project. Now what? Well, now you are faced with a tough decision: you can either “stick it out” and try and convince yourself that things will get better, or admit to yourself (and often to your donors and clients) that the partnership is not going to work out.

The lesson for us was that, although it does certainly not leave you with a warm-and-fuzzy feeling when it happens, ending a relationship to make room for a new one is something that’s essential when it comes to something as complex as health service delivery in developing countries.

Partnerships work!

In summary, don’t be afraid of partnerships (or online dating for that matter!). I am a testament to the potential of both: at Ona, by building successful programs with partners around the world, and at home, with a wonderful husband (whom I met via online dating) and 2 beautiful children. As difficult as it can be to find and nurture the right partners in health tech programs, it is vital in creating lasting social change. It is also an undeniably worthwhile and fascinating process.

As we’ve become more open to learning, collaboration, and curveballs, so too have the success of our technology solutions. We are proud of our network of OpenSRP partners that help us bring equitable access to healthcare to communities everywhere. If you are reading this thinking we’d make amazing partners and “want to go on a date with us”, please email biz@ona.io.