3/2015, In English, Kansainvälisyys, Tutkimus ja innovaatiot

International strategic partnerships – The human factor: It is after all individuals who work together, not institutions

Motives behind strategic partnerships

The notion of a more strategic approach to international partnerships means that there is more effort put into developing alliances with clear purposes and outcomes. In the words of Kai Kiiv of Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre: “A successful international partnership requires common ideas and aims the partners work for”. Gerard O’Donovan of Cork Institute of Technology School of Business defines international collaboration as strategy based when the strategic goal of his institute and the partnership are the same.

Partnerships are often induced through the provision of funds, for example through EU-project funding, and collaboration collapses as soon as funds dry up. Perhaps the idea of more strategic partnerships also means that the institutions are more poised to invest more themselves as investment of time, money and trained personnel by the institutions forming the strategic partnership is vital. According to Gerard O’Donovan: “Creating a strategy-based partnership needs buy-in and financial support from top management and be a shared vision by your faculty team.”

Bob Burke of Southampton Solent University defines a successful international partnership in higher education context as “one which has longevity and a ripple effect where the content, process and relationships not only have an impact on the participants but also beyond that”. It is unrealistic to think that a strategic partnership would involve the entire institution, but it cannot just be a responsibility of one or two individuals. It is therefore vital to keep everyone informed and sufficiently interested.

Human motives (and why partnerships sometimes don’t work out)

At the individual level the motives for working on internationalization probably relate to healthy curiosity and desire to learn. Working with foreign colleagues stimulates personal professional growth. Bob Burke describes his involvement as “an important project for my development. The cross-disciplinary thinking and the focus on cultural difference has given me a range of experiences that I would certainly never have had within my day-to-day role at my home institution”. The variety and diversity of cultural differences, which become apparent in international human cooperation may even reorganize personal understanding about the variety of cultural imperatives.

Peer to peer learning in international context may make one question “tried and true” professional actions, if one truly appreciates the knowledge overseas partners possess and is ready to offer something in return. According to Gerard O’Donovan, it has been positive to meet academics and students with common interests, but with diverse backgrounds. This has enriched his own personal life as well as resulting in development of a number of new programmes in his Faculty.

Bob Burke describes a strategic partnership as a team, which is responsive and adaptable within the strategies of each institution involved. A team consists of different people, which means that all the basic rules that define teamwork apply to strategic partnerships as well. When the roles in a team are not recognized and coordinated, when there has not been enough delegation of responsibilities or the decision making is unclear, there will be problems. Kai Kiiv adds that “trust between the partners is based on the knowledge and experience that you can rely on your partners – when the assignments have been divided and you can see that each partner is committed to them and fulfils them.”

Especially with academic collaboration there can be basic philosophical differences in methodologies, teaching and learning, which will cause inability to work together and the partners might find themselves working in parallel to each other instead of cooperating. The participants’ professional foci can be very personal and thus a sensitive subject, which may diminish one’s readiness to accept different approaches and change. Also there are personality differences in sense of personal power and what is understood as efficient. The connection a participant perceives between one’s educational efforts and intended outcomes is also very personal and culture dependent.

All these personal dimensions can cause mistrust and suspicion, which are not values that push the partnership further. If these cultural and other differences between partners are acknowledged and talked about, it helps to overcome some of the difficulties relating to mutual understanding. Kai Kiiv adds that “as far as international collaboration is concerned it often also means acknowledging and respecting cultural differences – working habits and attitudes in different countries can be rather different”. Reasons for misunderstandings due to different work cultures can be simply the work tempo and the different understanding of the nature of professional time.

Lasting strategic partnerships

According to a study by Vozzo and Bober (2001) there are four important factors that allow personal characteristics to contribute to successful long-lasting partnerships.

  1. There is time for practitioners to plan their activities and to know and to reflect on the professional and personal expectations of the participants.
  2. There is abilities within the partnership to make an analysis of the chosen methods to ensure effectiveness of the action.
  3. There are resources available to develop the participant commitment.
  4. There are funds available to sustain the planned and emerging activities.

Kai Kiiv explains that “in order it to be successful, the partners must acknowledge each other’s strengths and weaknesses to use the maximum capacity of each.” When the best individual qualities are linked with collaborative teams’ mutual actions it will give best results.

Complementarity is also important because cooperation makes sense only when in addition to similarities, differences in expertise are used and the partners gain professional expertise from the collaboration. Partnerships should have equal benefits and advantageous returns to all the members. Gerard O’Donovan compares international partnership to a marriage: “Give and take on both sides and always compromise for the greater good or shared goal.” Also Kai Kiiv mentions that actually like in any partnership flexibility and respect towards each other are the key factors.

The importance of the individuals maintaining informal contacts as well as formal contribute immensely to the success of long-lasting partnerships. Disagreements and misunderstandings inevitably occur, but they can be turned into fruitful situations for providing evidence for new patterns of action and abilities for conflict resolution. Trusting and respectful dialogue is what is needed. According to Bob Burke: “We all disagree on things frequently, but respect each other’s opinions and everyone is given a chance to contribute”. So there may be different approaches, but they are valued and people are willing to compromise.

Food for thought

The reasons for internationalization are also often only described at a macro level without reaching down to explore the individual motivations which may support or constrain internationalization at a particular institution. It is the people and their personal motives who shape the internationalization of each university. It could even be said that institutional partnerships easily fail, because they function through individuals and are therefore more vulnerable to personal instability and failure. And however high-grade ideas there might have been about the purposes of the partnership association, one quickly contends with some basic human interaction.

The complexity involved in working in the field of internationalization in my mind requires an additional set of knowledge, attitudes, skills and understandings about the international/intercultural/global dimension of higher education. These competences are however often taken for granted and not even recognized, nor developed actively.

When I asked the three interviewees what was the most important thing they had learned regarding international collaboration, all concluded that one always has to keep in mind the respect for cultural differences even if it can be difficult sometimes. There should be more importance attached to the promotion of intercultural understanding within the higher education context as well, especially in the light of the pressing challenges stemming from culturally based clashes within and between countries and peoples that we face today.


Minna Liski, Coordinator, BSc in Music, Lahti University of Applied Sciences, minna.liski@lamk.fi

The three people interviewed for this article were:

Mr Gerard O’Donovan, the Head of School of Business and Humanities at Cork Institute of Technology in Ireland

Mr Bob Burke, Senior Lecturer in Popular Music at Southampton Solent University, UK and

Ms Kai Kiiv, Project Manager of International Relations at Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre.

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