Rewarding partnerships

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Written by Sue Stoneman on 1 November 2013 in Features

Sue Stoneman explores what constitutes a true learning partnership, how one can be built and the benefits it can have

t's all about partnerships' is a phrase commonly heard within organisations today, with the traditional buyer-supplier relationship now largely consigned to case studies in historic business journals and their like.

Partnerships, like relationships, can vary significantly in their scope, nature and success, and the same is true for the results they deliver. The best results - insightful L&D programmes that create immediate and lasting behavioural changes that not only enhance operational performance but, crucially, also deliver a positive return on your training investment and make a valuable impact on the bottom line - are the fruit of true learning partnerships.

What is a true learning partnership?

While all learning is there to inspire action, true learning partnerships also maximise the effectiveness and business impact of all-too-precious training and development budgets. They are built on mutual respect and trust, with the client and agency working together as one, drawing upon each other's skills, experience and expertise to deliver powerful, long-lasting training that enhances personal, team and business performance.

What a true learning partnership looks like and how it can be created should not be the preserve of a fortunate few, so let us take a look at what you might expect to see in one:

  • the external agency and the in-house L&D team working together, as one
  • mutual trust in each other's ability to deliver those elements of the programme for which you have specific responsibility
  • a shared, complete understanding of the organisation's business strategy, objectives and culture
  • the thinking and emotional sides of both organisations are in step with each other
  • reduced programme development and delivery times, as a result of the higher pre-existing levels of organisational knowledge and understanding
  • an insightful, business-focused, strategically-aligned HR intervention in which the best of both organisations have come together to achieve a shared goal
  • carefully integrated programmes with an appropriate mix of learning tools and techniques designed to make a lasting change to how employees think and act
  • commitment to monitoring and evaluating the intervention against a clear set of metrics that have been carefully chosen to measure the initial and longer-term impact on operational performance and the bottom line
  • joint responsibility for, and ownership of, each programme's outcome
  • an ongoing desire to continue to achieve the best possible results from the available human and financial resources
  • interventions that make a marked and ongoing impact on the bottom line
  • insightful, innovative and impactful award-winning L&D programmes!

From a client's perspective, achieving all of the above is clearly an excellent, rewarding position to have reached.

"NKD Learning's support and performance have helped them become truly embedded within our organisation. We treat them like they are part of us, part of the DHL Express family."

Rick Jackson, VP, global head of CIS, DHL Express

How do you build a true partnership?

Firstly let's be clear: there is no magic formula to follow that will quickly and easily lead to the creation of a true learning partnership that automatically delivers engaging, world-class, business-transforming L&D programmes. After all, no organisation and their L&D agency have a God-given right to be in a true learning partnership.

The truth is that forging and maintaining true learning partnerships is in many ways similar to developing strong, long-term personal relationships. Getting there, reaching that enjoyable and worthwhile point, requires an awful lot of hard work from both parties over a sustained period of time. Learning partnerships need to be worked on every day.

For the agency, one of the most important stages is at the outset, when it seeks to discover as much as possible about its client and become totally immersed in the culture and workings of the organisation. Only by first investing the time and effort to really get to know and understand its client can an agency get to a position where it is able to develop the most appropriate, tailor-made programme to suit its client's particular needs and environment. The agency should be recognised as being there to help the client do good with its business.

Again drawing on the personal relationship analogy, it is important that there is honesty, frankness and openness to create a true learning partnership. Inevitably there will be some more difficult periods as the relationship develops and deepens but, if both parties share the same desire to succeed, the highest level of commitment to the project and mutual respect and trust, they will be able to work together through these issues and emerge stronger.

Co-creation of programmes

Where a true partnership exists, the agency and client will work together to co-create the final programme after the contract has been awarded. The additional research, followed by the subsequent joint adjustments and refinements, ensures the resultant, bespoke programme is a 'perfect fit' for the organisation.

Because the final programme may differ from what was originally presented at the pitch by as much as 20 per cent, it is important there are the highest levels of respect and trust between both parties in the relationship. The changes made at this stage are crucial, as these can prove to have an even more significant impact on the end result than the scale of the adjustments themselves. It takes a brave partner to say 'we know we have a great solution for you and we know 20 per cent of what we pitched will be wrong for your organisation. However, at this stage, we just don't know what 20 per cent but, if we work together, we will identify it and replace it with a much better 20 per cent of content'.

Successful partnerships are built on the two teams bonding closely at an early stage, getting to know each other and agreeing ground rules from the outset. Important decisions are generally made first on the basis of an emotional assessment and, secondly, on the basis of a rational evaluation of the available criteria. So creating a bonded, open and emotionally-connected team is critical to the success of the partnership.

Of course, the 'rational' is also important and you need great project disciplines to create a great partnership too. A valuable discipline and aid to building and maintaining successful partnerships is setting weekly progress calls or meetings, with a core fixed agenda to ensure there are absolutely no surprises to either side. A feature of these meetings should be honest and robust conversations, in which the original objectives should be constantly revisited. Of course, the outcomes need to be documented and reviewed too.

The four stages of a true learning partnership

  • Confidence Building additional confidence in each other and in the composition of the final programme. This period can typically last between two days and three weeks and is often referred to as the 'discovery' phase, during which the agency invests additional time in getting to know its client even better - from corporate and operational objectives, through to people's working practices, culture and the competitive environment
  • Integrity Building customer engagement. This is tested as soon as something goes wrong
  • Pride Between three weeks and three months of a programme commencing, members of the client team should begin to feel pride in the programme's initial progress. This can be demonstrated at stakeholder meetings1
  • Passion This typically materialises once the project has gone live and reflects confidence within the client team that the programme is helping them enhance the employee-customer experience2. This reinforces the existence of a genuine, lasting partnership between the client and its agency.

 Stephen Alexander, who was CEO at Le Meridien hotel company during a period of intense change, explained what a true learning partnership meant to him: "NKD Learning were brought in to help both unite and galvanise a global hospitality workforce to deliver a renewed brand promise of service excellence. It was vitally important to focus on customers, brand values and people development in spite of the financial and structural issues the company was facing. The support and shared ownership of the programme were invaluable to it achieving the positive results that it did."

Another example of what a true learning partnership can mean for a client comes from Jill Griffiths, organisational effectiveness manager at The Co-operative Food, for whom NKD Learning developed a store managers' development programme. Griffiths commented: "What made working with NKD Learning so good was that they developed and delivered the training programme as if they would have to live with the results themselves - that's a rare quality to find in a training partner."

According to NKD Learning director Andy Fisher, "what a true learning partnership can mean is that L&D programmes become exactly what is right for the client, after the best bits of the original pitch are moulded together, refined and tweaked by the client and agency".

In a true learning partnership, the L&D agency will take any pain away from the client and manage the successful delivery of a programme that, on the face of it, may seem so large as to be almost unmanageable.

A good example of this is the certified international specialist foundation programme for DHL Express, which NKD Learning developed and delivered to 100,000 DHL Express employees in 220 countries and territories, using 42 languages, all in less than 18 months. Its success was demonstrated by the metrics, which included increases of between 7 and 12 per cent in employee opinion survey scores. These results were truly astounding, exceeding not only expectations but also the agreed targets of 2 to 3 per cent. And, on top of that, the EOS scores are still continuing to rise.

Hard work, but rewarding

Developing and maintaining true learning partnerships between clients and L&D agencies takes a lot of time, effort and commitment, but the ROI is most certainly worth it!


1 Buckingham M, Coffman C First Break All The Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently Gallup (2005)

2 Fleming J H, Asplund J The Human Sigma: Managing the Employee- Customer Encounter Gallup (2007)

About the author

Sue Stoneman is the founding partner and CEO at L&D agency NKD Learning. She can be contacted at


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