Creating Optimal Partnerships to Tackle Socio-economic Problems

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Wharton's Aline Gatignon discusses her research on partnership structure.

When it comes to tackling large-scale socio-economic problems, especially in emerging markets, several entities usually form partnerships to solve these challenges. But what is the optimal configuration of these partnerships and how should they best be coordinated for maximum effect? That is the topic of an ongoing research study by Aline Gatignon, a management professor at Wharton, in cooperation with Luk N. Van Wassenhove, professor of technology and operations management at INSEAD, and Julien Clément, a doctoral candidate at INSEAD, with support from Wharton’s Mack Institute for Innovation Management.

Gatignon and her colleagues are gathering their data from North Star Alliance, a nonprofit that manages health clinics for truck drivers along African transport corridors. These clinics treat and educate this mobile group of workers, who have the ability to spread HIV/AIDS widely as they travel through towns and nations. Knowledge@Wharton recently spoke with Gatignon to discuss their research.

An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

Knowledge@Wharton: Tell me about your research and what you’re trying to accomplish.

Aline Gatignon: What we’re trying to do is connect internal coordination among members of an organization across different business units and geographies and connecting that internal coordination with external relationships with different stakeholders. So we’re trying to understand how you can not only acquire best practices from other organizations that you’re working with, but also spread these best practices within the organization, including across borders.

Knowledge@Wharton: What gave you the idea for the research?

Gatignon: This is a research opportunity that came out of some of the field work I was doing for my dissertation, where I was studying a 10-year partnership between the global logistics partner TNT and the United Nations World Food Program. And during this 10-year partnership, they identified HIV and AIDS among mobile populations, particularly truck drivers, as a key stumbling point for their operations — in particular, in Africa.

These mobile populations are on the road 99% of the time. They don’t have access to traditional health care options in these countries, in particular, because these [facilities] aren’t located close to the roads, they don’t cater to their specific needs, they’re not open at the times when [truck drivers] are stopping. And so, TNT and WFP, whom I was studying, created a spinoff, which is the North Star Alliance, an independent foundation that has been working to set up these clinics. And so, I have been tracking them. I wrote a case study on them before I joined the Ph.D. program, actually, and then watched them grow. And now, they’re at a size where we can actually do a large scale study on them, which is really neat.

“These mobile populations are on the road 99% of the time. They don’t have access to traditional health care options in these countries.”

Knowledge@Wharton: For those who don’t know, can you tell us a little bit about what exactly North Star Alliance does for truck drivers in Africa?

Gatignon: North Star Alliance has its headquarters in the Netherlands and two regional offices in South Africa, in Kenya, and then it has 35 — possibly all the way up to 60 — clinics that it establishes and manages on a day-to-day basis across different countries in Africa. The clinics are all set up along the same model. They are what they call a “blue box,” so it’s a transport container painted blue to be very recognizable and they [offer] … counseling work doing prevention with truck drivers, as well as other mobile populations, including commercial truck drivers and sometimes even the local populations that are around these truck stops.

And then, in addition to prevention, they also provide treatment and primary care, as well.

Knowledge@Wharton: Your research uses network theory as its anchor. Can you explain what that is?

Gatignon: A little bit more broadly, I’d say we’re using a relationship-based view of the organization — so, trying to understand the organization’s performance in function of its relationship with other organizations, as well as internally within the organization.

Network theory helps us to better understand the structure of ties between either internal members of the organizations or with external partners. Better understanding that structure and how it evolves over time is the contribution that network theory, and the tools that it brings to the table, helps us make to this general question.

“We are trying to look into how do you actually configure or establish the best configuration of partnerships? What’s the right level of diversity?”

Knowledge@Wharton: What is the goal of deploying that kind of strategy or method?

Gatignon: The idea is to be able to understand how the structure of a network, the structure of ties between a central node and others, actually helps influence organization outcomes. What we’re doing here is trying to connect external networks and internal networks and that’s something that is, I think, relatively new.

Knowledge@Wharton: I understand from what you told me earlier that North Star Alliance actually depends a lot on these partnerships.

Gatignon: Absolutely. I think what’s really interesting about the organization is the way it’s set up: Each of these centers functions the same way, but each of them has developed a very different ecosystem of public, private and nonprofit partners at the local level.

This could go from Chevron in South Africa giving financial resources to a clinic, to the local dance troop doing referrals and advocacy for them at a local level. That diversity is something that we feel is really intriguing; it’s really promising in terms of actually delivering novel and innovative solutions to large scale complex problems.… But at the same time, it also requires subtler, nuanced management methods. And so, we are trying to look into how do you actually configure or establish the best configuration of partnerships? What’s the right level of diversity? What can each partner, or what should each partner, be contributing and how do you spread best practices about how you manage those ecosystems within the organization?”

Knowledge@Wharton: What kinds of data are you collecting?

Gatignon: This is a mixed method study, which means that we’re using qualitative data from interviews and workshops that we’ve led with staff all across North Star, including with beneficiaries on location. We’re also using archival data on clinic characteristics and the coordinator characteristics for the staff members. We’re gathering on a quarterly basis surveys from the clinic coordinators themselves, as well as staff members at regional and headquarter offices, in terms of, “What are their internal communications within the organization?” Also, information on their external partners.

And then, we’re also combining that with performance data at the clinic level. North Star actually has a very interesting IT system that collects, on a daily basis, information on who’s going through the clinic, what kinds of treatments they’re getting, what populations they’re from, if they’re returning beneficiaries, etc.

Knowledge@Wharton: What are some practical applications you expect would arise from your research findings?

Gatignon: Well, first of all, we hope that our findings are going to be able to help North Star and other organizations doing similar kinds of work try to understand if they look at their ecosystem of partners, where the gaps might be and how they can build better ecosystems of partners to fulfill their missions. Beyond that, there are broader implications for all kinds of organizations that operate across borders, particularly in emerging market countries.

Knowledge@Wharton: How will your research be different from prior work in this area?

Gatignon: From a theoretical perspective, bringing together this perspective on external partnerships and internal coordination I think is something that is novel and should really help us move forward with some interesting insights on how these jointly affect innovation outcomes in multinational management.

Knowledge@Wharton: When do you expect to complete your study?

Gatignon: This is a long-term project, in particular, because we’re collecting longitudinal data. We’re in the data collection phase still and have started doing our quarterly surveys, so this is probably going to take two to three years to develop.

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