Betwixt & Between

Issue #5

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Exploring partnership culture – the partnership broker’s role

Abstract: A multi-stakeholder partnership brings together people with different skills, outlooks and personalities from sometimes dramatically different organisational and social cultures. This influences their organisational and cultural adaptability to shape and nurture the culture of the emerging partnership. It also raises some interesting questions about the role of the partnership broker in this process: how do we engage partners in understanding better their respective organisational cultures and how that could influence the design, development and management of their partnership arrangement and its emerging organisational culture? In this article, I draw on a particular case where I had an opportunity to explore the cultural dimension of an emerging corporate-NGO partnership, and to describe an ethnographic enquiry approach which addresses this question.

Exploring partnership culture – the partnership broker’s role in facilitating a new organisational paradigm

There are many definitions of organisational culture but they all focus on the same points: collective experience, routine, beliefs, values, goals, and system; and the fact that these are learned and re-learned, passed on to new employees, and continue as part of a company’s core identity. Schein, for instance, has defined organisational culture as: “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems that has worked well enough to be considered valid and is passed on to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems. [1]

To understand an organisation’s culture, Schein suggests looking at three levels:

  • artefacts (visible organisational structures and processes);
  • espoused values (strategies, goals, philosophies) and
  • the basic underlying assumptions (unconscious, taken for granted beliefs, perceptions, thoughts and feelings, hence the ultimate source of values and action).

Morgan describes organisational culture as: “the set of beliefs, values, and norms, together with symbols like dramatized events and personalities that represents the unique character of an organization, and provides the context for action in it and by it. [2]

Schein and Morgan’s conception of organisational culture applies equally to a multi-stakeholder partnership: it will have norms, value systems, artifacts and rituals, and its own distinctive identity during its lifetime. But how does it come to build such an identity? Does it emerge from a fusion of organisational cultures of the partner organisations? Or is it a new organisational culture where partners have to compromise their organisation’s culture to create a new joint one? If so, then how does this process happen? Does it have an impact on the organisational culture of partner organisations, transforming it in some way during the partnership building process? To what extent does a partnership’s culture come to reflect the personalities of the influential individuals involved? Does the organisational culture of their respective organisations enhance or inhibit their contributions and interactions?

These are interesting questions worthy of some serious academic and/or action enquiry but do they add genuine value to the partnering process? I believe they do. A greater understanding, awareness and sensitivity to organisational culture among organisations seeking to partner can increase their chances of partnering effectively. We encourage partners to build a resource map to underpin their contributions. Why not encourage them to also develop a ‘culture map’?

As partnership brokers, we are in a position to observe behaviours and group dynamics at work in the day-to-day life of the emerging partnership; we are exposed to and experience the cultural dimensions of the partner organisations as we perform our roles and tasks. Therefore, understanding a partnership in terms of its emerging organisational culture and in relation to the organisational culture of the partners helps us too – we have the opportunity to make practical and tactful interventions where required.

The usefulness of exploring the cultural dimension is understood. The challenge is one of putting it into practice in the normal course of the partnering process: how to incorporate it into the early partnership scoping and building work without making the process too formal or too onerous. This has implications for the methodology and tools which can be used.

When I was given my first opportunity to explore the cultural dimension of an emerging corporate-NGO partnership I was supporting, I found I had to design the enquiry approach from scratch. I chose to develop an ethnographic approach, described in the case study below. Ethnographic methodology allows data to be collected in as raw a form as possible from several perspectives, which then is typically presented as verbal descriptions, explanations and in-depth quotations [3]. It can be combined with other techniques to help cross-validate findings and generate different kinds of textual and visual data.

An ethnographic approach to cultural enquiry 

The emerging partnership was between a European global technology company and a European medium-sized arts NGO to co-develop digital solutions for education, co-production, creative and social networking for deaf people living in different countries. The company is a global brand and Fortune 150 manufacturing company with a mass market of millions of people using its consumer technology products world-wide. The NGO is a not-for-profit deaf arts (theatre and dance) organisation which deals with a niche market of several thousand people.

In the early days of the discussion between the six key protagonists from the two organisations on their working relationship and planning process, I noticed they made references to “our culture”, “our values”, “our way of working” when they talked about their organisation.  I suggested to the lead protagonists whether it would be useful to explore further the cultural dimension of their emerging partnership. They agreed, and together we set the scope of the enquiry I would facilitate: to engage them in articulating and understanding their respective organisational cultures and how this was being reflected in the management of their partnership arrangement and its emerging organisational culture.

The partnership was in its early development phase and I felt it would be important to draw out the protagonists’ description of their own organisational culture; their perception of their partner’s organisational culture; and their aspirations and expectations of the partnership organisational culture, looking at both enablers and barriers to effective working. At the same time, I thought it would be useful for me to observe how organisational cultures and artifacts as well as their personalities were being reflected in their interactions. All the information gathered could then be fed into the partnership building and managing work.

However, I did not want to make the enquiry process too onerous, especially given the small number of participants – hence, the choice of an ethnographic approach, using a combination of techniques (Table 1).

Table.1   Description of the ethnographic approach I used for culture enquiry of the corporate-NGO partnership
Open-ended interviews Observation Context mapping
Purpose Learn how protagonists  contextualise, describe organisational culture in their own words Learn about protagonists’ cultural behaviour in action Understand the environment in which the cultural development takes place & decipher organisational culture through artifacts
  • Recorded interviews with the six individuals (3 in each organisation), using a semi-structured protocol
  • Self-administered completion of a grid based on Cox and Hopkins[4] four-model classification of organisational culture
Observations in partnership meetings on the interactions & relationships between the individuals
  • Observation of organisational culture artifacts
  • Photographic collage 
Data analysis
  • Quotations from informants
  • Synthesis of ‘Cox-Hopkins’ grid data
Descriptions of behaviours, actions & interactions around meeting management; communication & socialisation, learning, partnering process development Descriptions of artifacts around processes, social rituals, organisational stories & legends, language, interior design, employee interactions ,websites, publications, notice boards and posters etc.
Data interpretation
  • Descriptive patterns
  • Relationships & linkages amongst descriptive dimensions
  • Descriptive patterns
  • Relationships & linkages amongst descriptive dimensions
  •  Descriptive patterns
  •  Relationships & linkages amongst descriptive dimensions

Key observations on exploring the cultural dimension of an emerging partnership

From the enquiry I facilitated into the particular corporate-NGO partnership, I can offer the following observations:

Open-ended interviews can yield different types of descriptions on an organisation’s culture:

Those that reflect what the person personally experiences daily and those she/he believes is the ‘official line’ on their organisational culture, behavioural norms, structures and value systems. This was certainly the case with the individuals in the corporate-NGO partnership. In response to the open question – ‘tell me about your organisational culture’,  they shared personal anecdotes around specific incidents or experiences to illustrate the values, norms and systems of their organisation but also used language which was consistent with what appeared on their websites, marketing, HR recruitment, internal publications and other materials.

The Cox and Hopkins’s organisational culture grid type of tool can help provide a direct comparison around some common organisational culture and identity criteria.

The grid focuses on four types of organisational culture – Role, Control, Goal and Soul – and uses a simplified terminology for each culture (Table 2).

Table 2 – Cox and Hopkins Organisational Culture Grid

Control Role Goal Soul
My priority is my Boss Duty Task People
Decisions come from the Boss Policy Goal Consensus
Authority comes from Power Seniority Expertise Wisdom
Our system is Autocratic Bureaucratic Charismatic Democratic
People in our organisation are Stratified Inter-changeable Unique Equal
Our myths are about the Boss Organisation Champions Team
The world is a Jungle System Opportunity Community
As a boss I expect Obedience Reliability Competence Co-operation
As an employee I expect Reward Security Challenge Support
Interaction between people is based on Exchange Reason Values Sharing
Interaction between organisations is based on Conquest Function Competition Networking
People succeed by knowing the Boss System Resources People
We go out in the world prepared for Battle Debate Game Learning
People work for Reward Contract Achievement Enjoyment
Instinctive reaction to a customer Deal Explain Connect Listen

In the case of the corporate-NGO partnership, I asked the six individuals to circle those characteristics that best described their view. To get a spontaneous response, I omitted the Role, Control, Goal and Soul headings which I felt would distract them and provided no explanation of the terms used on the grid.  I then collated the ratings to identify which model or models predominated in each organisation. I also went back to the interview transcripts to see how the grid ratings correlated with statements the individuals had made about organisational culture. I used the collated grids as well as quotations from the interviews to facilitate a discussion around their own organisation’s and their partner’s culture.

The principals from the global company highlighted all but one of the traits of the Soul culture with several also of the Goal. According to Cox and Hopkins, the positive features of the Soul culture are good communication, commitment, high trust, co-operation, caring and listening and sense of belonging. The positive features of the Goal culture include high motivation, maximum use of talent, rapid learning, unity of effort, reduced controls and mutually valued goals. All these attributes of Soul and Goal cultures were also evident in the responses the individuals gave in the interviews, for example, trust, and respect for diversity, meritocracy, co-operation, informality, emotional ties, and results orientation.

The NGO principals’ responses to the features on the grid suggested they believed their organisation fitted the Soul and Goal cultures the most with some elements of the Role culture. According to Cox and Hopkins, the positive features of the Role culture are clear lines of authority, structure, and limit to personal power, efficient operations, and well-designed systems. The attributes of Role, Soul and Goal cultures were also referred to in the open-ended interviews, for example, the sense of belonging, caring, informality, community, emotional connections, and high motivation for disability culture.

Interestingly, none of them mentioned that there was on paper at least, a good ‘fit’ based on the Soul and Goal traits of their organisations. I chose not to steer the conversation towards finding a ‘good’ or ‘perfect fit’ – partly because I wanted any such inferences to come from the individuals themselves, and partly because I felt it would lead to an anodyne outcome.

Facilitating a cultural dialogue within the relationship building and outline planning stages can help partners envision and articulate their expectations of the emerging partnership’s culture.

It can help draw out their views on which aspects of their own organisational culture they would like to take with them into the partnership, share what they see as enablers and barriers to effective working, reflect on their motivations for working with a particular organisation as well as consider the learning and other outcomes of working with each other.

In the case of the corporate-NGO partnership, the participants had formed some favourable perceptions of each other’s organisational values, reputation, and behaviours and had recognised each organisation’s commitment to the deaf community and young people. That was considered a good basis to proceed with developing the partnership programme. When asked to articulate their aspiration and expectations of how their emerging partnership should work, their comments were open and forthright, as can be seen from the sample of quotations in Box 1 below.

Enablers would be: Barriers would be:
  • “Shared vision, wanting to make a big change”
  • “Learning from each other, us from a global company about the business world’s way of working, how it can share its knowledge about consumers. And it can learn from us about using informality and creativity in business”
  • “Spontaneity, seizing opportunities, being courageous”
  • “Easy decision-making is part of our company I’d like to take into the partnership. A partnership where trust, taking your word and informal way of working is a given.”
  • “I am at ease with partners who are contemporary thinkers, challenge themselves, forward looking, risk takers, share curiosity with us and want to create things together, want to create value for both sides”
  • “I like working with no-nonsense people who go straight into the issue and are not afraid of tackling problems or telling you the truth”.
  • “Losing sight of the fact we are a small organisation that cannot handle too many projects or has too many resources”
  • “Nervous about being able to live up to the company’s wider ambitions for the disability world. We can’t deliver the big picture to the big world, only to the community we know”
  • “Lack of courage, cold feet. Or failing to communicate with us on equal terms because they are afraid we are too big or powerful.”
  • “Working with partners who try to please you all the time and are afraid they will upset you. We are direct communicators and expect our partners to tell us what they think rather than what we want to hear”.



In my view, an added bonus of facilitating a discussion around enablers and barriers is that it can help illustrate the value of transparency and equity of voice and influence between partners.

Observing organisational culture in action is important in validating the statements partners make about their beliefs, perceptions, thoughts and feelings.

The second component of my ethnographic approach was to observe the group’s behaviours, interactions and relationships which I felt could best illustrate culture in action: meeting management; communication and socialisation; learning; and partnering process development. These are also the areas where, as a partnership broker, I would normally be expected to make a helpful and practical intervention.

In practice, I found I had little cause to intervene. There was a healthy correlation between what the individuals were saying and what they were doing. For instance, the meeting process was disciplined and structured, where by mutual agreement, the lead protagonist from the global company chaired the meetings. The discussion was focussed, even during creative brainstorming. The participants were pragmatic, wanting to move from concept and abstract ideas presented by the plant[5] and shaper in the group to delivery and action: ‘how quickly can we get this to the youngsters’ was tacit in decision-making. There was an early emphasis on agreeing a collaboration agreement and an outline plan.

Interestingly, when the group was working on their collaboration agreement, I posed the question about whether the group needed to include a conflict resolution process, both lead protagonists rejected the idea on the basis that as they had agreed to ‘speak their minds’ with each other, share any concerns openly, and find solutions together, it was unnecessary to put that down on paper. During my time with the partnership I did not see any signs of open dissension, putting it down to the quality of partnership management processes and the commitments the lead protagonists had made.

An early mutually agreed decision was for the company to co-locate one of its technical staff with the NGO for a period of six months. It was not only a sound operational decision but it was also seen by the NGO as a sign of serious commitment from the company in customising the technical product.  In terms of communication and socialisation, the communication style and tone was informal, the use of language a reflection of the social origins of the team. Informality extended to humour and social banter, with the stories and anecdotes they shared a reflection of their common interest in the arts, parenting, food and travel.

All individuals showed they were open to new ideas and making some adjustments to their way of working. For instance, at the first meeting, the presenter from the company used Microsoft PowerPoint slides to present her proposal in a very structured way. Her counterpart from the NGO took a looser, much more ad hoc approach. At the next meeting, although she did not use PowerPoint, she was more structured in her presentation. Over the next few meetings, the individuals from the company made more use of illustrations and diagrams to present their ideas, which was closer to the way people at the NGO worked. The end result was a hybrid format where both approaches to presenting information could be accommodated.

Physical symbols and artefacts can provide some context for cultural expression but may only have a lightweight impact on how the partnership is managed.

Because of limitations of time and access, I chose to do a superficial review of observable symbols and signs such as websites, corporate and marketing publications, office interactions and designs (Table 3). I did not observe any overt influences on the partnership. The photographic collage I produced completed the cultural profiles.

Table 3 Observations on some key organisational culture artefacts
Observations on key artefacts NGO partner Corporate partner
Organisational stories & legends  30 year old organisation – stories related were typically about the theatre’s repertoire & about the actors, dancers, directors;  playwrights; visual artists 100 year old organisation – stories were about the company’s history, the crises it has faced, its products, its leaders, its responsibilities as a global business and brand
Rituals & ceremonies  Typified by the NGO’s business etiquette Typified by the company’s  business etiquette
Organisational language  Informal, jargonised for arts & theatre Formal, jargonised for business & technology
Physical structures & symbols  Open plan cluttered, personalised working spaces full of personal effect (family photos, children’s drawings, postcards, desk accessories etc.)‘Homely’ communal spacesEclectic interior design – no evidence of conforming to any guidelines. Buildings reflect the purpose of the organisation – basic rehearsal studios, workshops, stores Open plan, functional, less personalised working spaces, increasing use of ‘hot desking’.Functional communal spacesInterior design dictated by brand identity – colour schemes, imagery Buildings reflect open, transparent & egalitarian principles company espouses – open atria, extensive use of glass & wood & meeting places

So what, and where next?

The enquiry described above provided two types of information: (a) an understanding of the organisational culture context in which the particular emerging partnership was developing and the role its protagonists played in shaping and living it; and (b) an ethnographic methodology I could use again in understanding organisational culture of other partnerships I would be involved with.

On reflection, this was a cultural exploration of a relatively trouble free, emerging partnering relationship, as it involved protagonists with a relatively ‘close cultural fit’. There was some homogeneity in their perceptions of their organisational cultures – for instance, around notions of egalitarianism, pragmatism, informality, directness, trust, modesty, transparency, adaptability, respectfulness, a genuine engagement with social issues. The close organisational match combined with the personalities, personal values and conduct of the protagonists meant that no one culture was dominant over the other. The partnership ended after 20 months when the agreed objectives were achieved. In that time, the partnership had not developed a new, distinctive way of working. Instead, it had adopted and modified some practices from each organisation to support its way of working and accommodated differences in each organisation– i.e. found a way to be flexible. The partnership culture was a hybrid rather than a brand new product.

It is likely that I would have seen a different outcome had there been more pronounced diversity in organisational or social cultures and individual personalities and behaviour and the types of challenges we often see in partnership building and development. We could envisage several scenarios which provide the context for cultural behaviour in action (Table 4).

Table 4   Scenarios for partnership organisational culture

Scenario Example of where we would expect to see most influence
Partnership reflects the similarities between the business culture of the  partner organisations and values in its way of working – culture is a ‘blend’ of cultural styles & indistinguishable from the partner organisations Communication style, business etiquette and some artefacts (e.g. dress code, interior design) similarities are adopted into the partnership
Partnership chooses / adopts and modify practices from one organisation to support its way of working – culture is transplanted from one partner organisation into the partnership Processes, frameworks and methodologies used by one partner are used in partnership’s day-to-day operations
Partnership accommodates differences in each organisation – i.e. find a way to be flexible –culture is a hybrid Some processes, language and symbols – each side will keep its language / jargon, its visual identity & other artefacts
Partnership co-creates a new way of working or new symbols  – culture is unique to the partnership Across all activities.

It would be useful to explore further these scenarios and look more broadly at cultural dimensions of partnerships. I would be keen to hear from peers who have experiential insights and evidence of such dimensions at play.

In terms of the methodology, I believe ethnographic study is a valid way of understanding and deciphering organisational culture in emerging partnerships: it yields useful cultural understandings from the viewpoint of the people directly responsible for creating the partnership. It contributes to the partnership story. It is a useful aide to the work of a broker in the early stages of the partnering life cycle – when we are identifying potential partners, making the case to potential partners, using every opportunity to help them deepen their understanding of each other, and managing their expectations. However, it is possible – and even desirable – to keep the process simple, allocating a few days to ‘survey’ the protagonists, synthesise and present the information gathered as an input into the planning and review processes. Keeping a ‘culture mapping’ exercise simple and relevant may also be easier to sell to partners.



After a career in the corporate sector, Surinder Hundal is now working specifically in the field of cross-sector partnerships, partnership brokering and partnership evaluation. She works as an independent accredited partnership broker and as a specialist in corporate social responsibility. She sits on the Board of the Partnership Brokers Association (PBA), the international professional association for partnership brokers. She holds a post-graduate certificate in Cross-sector Partnerships from the University of Cambridge.  Surinder has worked in Asia Pacific, Europe, the USA, the Middle East and Africa, principally in telecommunications businesses such as Nokia and BT, where she led multi-faceted communications, strategy, marketing, corporate responsibility and partnership development roles. She also led policy and communications at the International Business Leaders Forum. Surinder can be reached on


[1]  Schein, E. H. (1992). Organizational culture and leadership (2nd Ed.), San Francisco, Jossey- Bass

[2]  Morgan, G. (1986), Images of organization. Newbury Park, CA, Sage Publications

[3] Genzuk, M. (2003), A synthesis of ethnographic research. Centre for Multilingual, Multicultural Research, University of Southern California, Los Angeles. Located at  Other useful references on ethnographic research: Hammersley, M. (1990), Reading ethnographic research: a critical guide. London, Longman | Spradley, J. (1979) The ethnographic interview. New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston

[4] Cox, G. & Hopkins, W. (1996), Developing a whole organisational culture. Located at

[5] Team roles are as described by Belbin – used to identify people’s behavioural strengths and weaknesses in the workplace. Plant: creative, problem solving. Shaper: the driver.


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