Tips for getting the best from your project partnership

A Guest Post by Laurence Elliott, ILT & Learning Resources Coordinator at Morley College

Underpinning agreement in ACL Consortiums

A recent straw poll of London region Adult and Community Learning providers seems to indicate that most don’t use formal Consortium Agreements (CAs) during projects or have templates for these. Templates do exist online but using these directly without tailoring them to your own project’s needs is not recommended (see ‘Creating a Consortium Agreement’ by Andrew Charlesworth for useful information on formal CAs). Adapting these types of documents obviously requires legal expertise, something which smaller institutions may or may not have in-house. Given that formal CAs do not appear to be the norm in ACL consortiums – what can providers put in place to help underpin agreement on projects?

For many projects the bid submission (incorporating comprehensive work plan, clear milestones, clearly defined outputs etc.) will be the key project document underpinning agreement. These are best developed in a process involving all members of the consortium. The lead institution should ensure agreement before the document is submitted and this can sometimes be difficult to achieve when writing to a short deadline. The process will be easier where established relationships exist through previous collaboration. Consortiums with clear and well-structured bids are still likely to benefit from an initiation stage in which to refine and extend the document.

If for some reason it hasn’t been possible to involve all partners in the bidding process then developing a project initiation document (PID) before work starts is likely to be useful. The draft document may be largely developed by the lead institution but should be fully discussed and agreed by project leads from all the consortium providers. The PID needs to be developed to a level of detail sufficient to maintain control of the project. Consortiums may adopt in-house approaches to projects or tailor a methodology like PRINCE2®. Guidance on scaling down project methodologies is available; see for example ‘PRINCE2® for small-scale projects’ by Chris Ferguson. As a living document the PID will be subject to revision as the project progresses.

Roles and responsibilities should also be agreed during the initiation stage. Producing detailed descriptions for these can seem like overkill, especially on small projects. However, issues can arise even on internal projects where lack of prior agreement around roles can cause unnecessary overlap and duplication. These may be verbally agreed rather than being formally signed off but should be documented. It can be useful to define clear roles and responsibilities for sponsors too as not all managers have extensive experience of this project role.

Steering groups have a key role in maintaining agreement across the consortium. The constituent members will vary but groups should meet at regular intervals to agree decisions around budget, strategy etc. Regular face-to-face meetings are important to help build working relationships and smooth out differences between organisational cultures. Videoconferencing may be an alternative or supplementary option for consortiums with a wide geographic spread, otherwise a central location may be preferred to ensure the maximum number of members can participate. Scheduling software like Meetomatic can be useful for coordinating complex availability in consortiums with several project partners.

Continuity in terms of consortium representatives will support the work of the steering group and ideally all should be involved from the beginning of the project to encourage a sense of ownership. Issues can be experienced where organisations join a project late. Latecomers may feel outside an established group and feel frustrated that they cannot input meaningfully into shaping the project. Project Leads need to have a certain level of delegated authority to participate effectively in decision making. Those with less experience are likely to require greater support in their role. Steering groups can provide this to a certain extent but can’t compensate for deficiencies in institutional backing.

In addition to consultation during the bidding process it can be useful for the project manager in conjunction with Jisc to visit all consortium providers early in the project. This can create the opportunity for a wider range of users and interested parties to be consulted and ensure greater buy-in to the project. Stakeholder buy-in can in turn translate into increased support for individual project leads. Wherever possible, meetings and training events should take place at all members of the consortium to maintain and develop the profile of the project.

Although all projects are unique, some common features of successful projects emerge in discussion with colleagues:

  • A need for clarity is identified as a key requirement, including clear project documentation and guidance around roles and responsibilities.
  • Establishing effective project governance with a steering group which meets regularly and operates in a professional and collegiate manner is also important.
  • Good working relationships and trust built up through informal collaboration and knowledge sharing can be a sound foundation for potential partnerships.

Consortiums formed on this basis are likely to arrive at a consensus more easily.

Useful links

Creating a Consortium Agreement’ by Andrew Charlesworth

PRINCE2 for small-scale projects‘, by Chris Ferguson, Novare Consulting