On this Home page you will find occasional blogs about what we are doing, what we think about what’s going on in the co-operative world and topics of interest. Elsewhere on the site (see links above & on the right) you will find free downloadable tips, tools and techniques to help you work together more effectively – what we call ‘Co-operative Skills’, as well as information on our services and how to get in touch.
Part of Co-operative UK’s Co-operative Skills Seminar programme, Strategic Planning and Managing Change is a completely new seminar, designed to meet worker co-operative training needs identified by the Worker Co-operative Council.
The content was influenced by the Worker Co-op Code of Governance, by our recent work with Unicorn Grocery in Manchester and by Bob Cannell’s work on co-op friendly management techniques (Oct 2010 Break Free from our Systems Prison) as well as experience with other worker co-operatives addressing issues around change.
However since this topic is so broad, we will be circulating a brief questionnaire to everyone who books for the seminar, in an effort to ensure that the content is relevant and pitched at an appropriate level for participants. Additionally, we would be happy deliver an in-house version of this seminar, tailor made for the requirements of your co-operative. Please get in touch if you would like to know more.
The seminar aims to help you improve participative strategic planning, helping your co-operative grow or change, and covers:
- exploring your shared goals and what motivates your members
- participative strategic planning tools
- typical challenges
- change management techniques
So the Co-operative Group Chief Executive has offered his resignation as he considers the organisation to be ‘ungovernable’. His proposed solution, if Robert Peston’s report is accurate, is a more PLC-style Board composed of more executives and fewer elected members. Clearly if such a move is adopted it would threaten the co-operative way the group is managed, but if that’s what Members want, that’s fine. The key issue here is that Members (such as myself) should be the ones to make that decision, not the Chief Executive. It’s not a Chief Executive decision, neither is it a Board decision. A decision of such magnitude, affecting the very nature of governance and strategic control of the enterprise, should be a member decision. Co-operative Boards are elected to oversee strategic management of the business. Co-operative managers are responsible for operational management to achieve the strategic direction agreed by the Board.
But crucially, in a co-operative, on major issues such as structure, election of Directors and levels of Member profit distribution, Members should have the final say. Members own the business, they are the sovereign body, and the Board should seek their views. The fact that the most consultative process the Co-operative Group has carried out in decades – #haveyoursay – was targeted at the general public and not members was a worry. If people want a say they can join. Membership is open and voluntary!
Far from democratic member control being a weakness, as is being reported, it is the strength of the co-operative model. If anything, it is the failure of the Co-operative Group to use its democratic structure to listen to its members that is losing its advantage and causing the current problems. If member economic participation was taken more seriously, we might not be facing the reported financial crisis that the Group is facing.
The Group’s Chief Executive is reported as claiming the business is ‘ungovernable’. Yes, it is ungovernable by an individual, because it is democratically controlled – in much the same way a democratic country is ungovernable by dictators! But that does not make it ‘unmanageable’ which should be the Chief Executive’s concern. He is a servant of the Board not their master and should manage according to their agenda not set the agenda. Board scrutiny of strategic governance decisions is a strength.
One of the main accusations being levelled at the Co-operative Group at the moment is that its Board requires particular expertise in its members. This is only true if your enterprise adopts a ‘management’ style of governance. If you have a ‘representative’ style of governance (adopted by most co-operatives practising the Co-operative Principle of democratic member control) it does not follow that your Board cannot make good decisions. A key duty – and good practice – for Directors of co-operatives, whatever the legal structure, is to act within the bounds of their own skills and experience. When they fail to have significant experience they should take specialist advice and act upon it. You bring the specialists in when needed – you don’t hand the Board over to them! On this, the largest co-operative in the land could learn from the governance good practice used by many of the smallest.
Another accusation that is levelled at the Co-operative Group is that, because the Board is democratically elected, executives cannot get on with their job of managing the business. I believe this is a load of rot that is being levelled by people opposed to democratic member governance or who have personal grudges to bear. If it is the case then the answer is to review the management systems, job roles and responsibilities of executives – not to change the nature of the governing body. If this were a mainstream corporation they would call in management consultants. This is an option open to the Co-operative Group. Again, the largest co-operative in the land can learn from some of the smallest. From small consumer co-operatives running a village shop or pub to the Phone Co-op or other co-operative retailers, the division between strategic governance, strategic management and operational management is made clear and executives have clearly defined job roles, responsibilities and decision making powers that enable them to get on with running the business in line with the wishes of the Board, who represent the interests of the Member owners. Co-operantics, along with many of our co-operative development colleagues who deliver support to smaller co-operatives funded by the Group’s own Co-operative Enterprise Hub, possess the skills and understanding in this area that many corporate consultants do not!
We really hope that the Co-operative Group can resolve this latest crisis, and will not look to the City for a solution, where consultants do not understand democratically-controlled member businesses and will advocate a shift towards their comfort zone of shareholder interests over-riding those of consumers, workers and communities. Instead we hope it will look to its members and its sisters and brothers in the wider movement who are all willing and ready to contribute to a solution. The co-operative model challenges those city assumptions – and provides a more sustainable business model – let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater!
Sat 8th March saw Co-operantics represented at the Southampton Co-operative City Conference.
In addition to updates from Southampton Area Co-operative Development Agency’s John Merritt & Dave Griffiths, Council leader Simon Letts and Councillor Andrew Pope on the “Co-operative City” idea and its progress, there was an excellent key note presentation from Nick Matthews, Vice Chair of Co-operatives UK and introductions to West Solent Solar Co-operative and Hamwic Housing Co-operative.
During the afternoon Nathan facilitated a workshop on Co-operative Skills. With only a 45 minute slot we still managed to incorporate information about what co-operative skills are and why they are important along with a group session exploring what makes good and bad meetings. Despite the time restraints the group even got to the stage of discussing strategies for avoiding bad meeting behaviours and encouraging good meeting behaviours. The way the exercise worked provided an opportunity for people to work in teams towards a shared task, which in itself may have helped some participants reflect on the way their co-op works! Perhaps the most engaged disccussions were around co-operatives having too many meetings and problems with participation in meetings. Are the two linked? Quite possibly. As participants agreed: there’s got be some purpose to the meeting for it to be worthwhile and if people aren’t attending, maybe it is because they don’t see the value in it. Wise words. There was even debate about whether or not incentives such as food are counter productive bringing people for the wrong reasons! The challenge to co-ops is to unpick the answer to “What’s In It For Me?” for members to attending meet – which may come back to ensuring the co-op is truly delivering member benefit and that the members are in agreement about what that benefit should be and what common goals they want to achieve. That’ll be strategy then!
The fruits of participants’ labour:
If you would like Co-operantics to run a workshop at your conference or event, get in touch!
Cooperantics has recently reviewed the quality of our services in three ways:
- We provided the Co-operative Enterprise Hub, to whom we are a sub-contractor, with evidence of: how we carry out personal reviews to ensure our practitioners are able to deliver a quality service to clients; how we keep track of our practitioners’ ongoing personal development; how we conduct reviews of the service our organisation delivers, and how we provide our complaints procedure.
- We took part in a service review session with members of two other Co-operative Development Bodies: Principle Six and Co-operative Solutions. The process enabled us to learn from each other’s practice and identify ways in which we could all improve the service we provide to co-operatives.
- Each practitioner in Co-operantics underwent a peer appraisal, in which we reviewed our practice with a client. This process helps us identify our strengths, weaknesses and areas in which we would like to develop skills or understanding, which in turn influences our professional personal development plans.
We are confident our ongoing review process maintains and improves the quality of the support we provide and feedback from clients indicates that view is shared!
Happy New Year from us at Co-operantics – we hope 2014 brings us all peace, happiness and co-operation.
Here at Co-operantics Towers we are very excited about a new series of seminars we are working on with Co-operatives UK, Seeds for Change, Rhizome and Dynamix – focusing on Co-operative Skills. We expect to be launching the seminars in Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol later in the Spring – watch this space for further information!
In the meantime, maybe you’d like to have a go at our Co-operative Skills Audit, which will provide you with a yardstick to assess communications, meetings and decision-making, as well as how effectively you deal with conflict and how well you work as a team.
Happy Holidays from Co-operantics, here’s to health, happiness & co-operation!
How about some festive music-making fun (thanks to Lizzie & Wayne)
Media comment about recent events at the Co-op Bank has generated much heat but very little light over the issue of governance in co-operatives. Like others in the UK co-operative movement, we are concerned that apparent failures in governance – as highlighted by the ex-Chief Executive of the Co-operative Group in his recent appearance before a government select committee – are being extrapolated to apply to all co-operatives.
This is far from the case. It’s important to remember that although the Co-operative Group provides generous levels of resources to support the UK Co-operative movement, it is not synonymous with it. Also the Group has a hierarchical and somewhat complex structure – unique in the UK – due to its size and its 150-year history. The current structure has grown over the years, through mergers and transfers of engagements, most recently with the historic merger of CWS and CRS, with a resulting mix at national Board level of representatives of other consumer retail co-ops as well as Group representatives from different regional Boards.
Co-op News reports that the Group has launched an independent review to look at “strategic decision-making, management structures, culture, governance and accounting practices”, and with a new Group Chair, Ursula Lidbetter MBE, Chief Executive of Lincolnshire Co-op, providing leadership and guidance, the future looks positive.
Co-operatives with a flat, democratically managed organisational structure aim to involve more people in decision-making, so good governance is critical, because without it we would be engaged in endless decision-making meetings or be subject to the whim of unaccountable charismatic leaders. We need structures which protect people from themselves and each other, so that we are not totally reliant on individual integrity, (not that integrity is not a good thing in itself!)
How can co-ops avoid problems arising from poor governance? A co-operative organisational structure should facilitate clear lines of delegation and accountability for decision-making. Directors must have clearly defined roles differentiating their responsibilities from those of operational management. There should be agreed policy on election of Board members to ensure a healthy turnover whilst at the same time retaining continuity. Member engagement is critical, with members involved in a range of different ways, including standing for the Board, so that there are contested elections at the AGM. And of course all members need excellent co-operative skills – good communication, efficient meetings and decision-making and effective techniques for coping with conflict. Inclusiveness is key – cliques and cronyism have no place in a successful co-operative.
Co-operantics has recently been part of a team delivering the ILM-accredited training programme: Core Competencies for Co-operative Business Advisors, which addresses these issues in detail, including organisational structures, legal forms, governance and co-operative management. The programme is funded through the Co-operative Enterprise Hub, itself funded by the Co-operative Group.
We are extremely pleased that our good friends Co-operative Business Consultants are organising a major conference on Friday 17th January 2014: Co-op Bank Crisis Ways Forward for the Co-operative Movement where activists, co-operators and co-operative business advisors will debate how we move on from the current crisis, building on the successes of the last few years.
And don’t forget: Co-operative businesses have a higher survival rate than conventional businesses, and the co-operative sector is growing faster than the UK economy, increasing by 20% in the last five years.
For more detailed discussion of the issues we recommend:
Although it has been out in the wild for over a year, we think this video is a great introduction to the wider movement for members of co-operatives. You could use it in your induction processes
If your co-operative is located in the South East of England or London, we may be able to provide with some support for free. As part of the regional co-operative consortium South East Co-operative Support we are able to work with co-operatives who apply for support from The Co-operative Enterprise Hub. To make sure you identify the right sort of support, and that the work is allocated to Co-operantics, we advise having a chat first. Nathan is our contact for these areas so contact him using the form or email address on our Contact Us page.
People interested in starting a new co-op can also receive assistance through The Co-operative Enterprise Hub.