25. October 2016 · Comments Off on the what, why and how of multistakeholder co-ops · Categories: About Co-operatives, Uncategorized

Co-operatives are set up for the benefit of their members – be they shoppers in a consumer retail co-op, employees in a workers’ co-op, tenants in a housing co-op or savers and borrowers in a credit union.

These are single stakeholder* models, where there is just one class of member, but they do not take account of the range of different stakeholders that might be interested in the operations of the co-operative, for example in the case of a worker co-op that might mean suppliers, users of the co-operative’s services, customers, or local people who might be willing to invest or buy loan-stock.  In the case of a consumer co-operative that might mean employees, suppliers or local community groups.

*stakeholders can be described as: ‘individuals or groups that can affect or be affected by an organisation. Stakeholders can come from inside or outside the organisation. Examples include customers, employees, members, shareholders, suppliers, non-profit groups and the local community, among others’.

multi-stakeholder-graphicThe multi-stakeholder co-operative model addresses a multiplicity of stakeholder interests and turns it into a strength and greater sustainability for the co-operative.

(image courtesy of http://bcca.coop/momentum/info-centre/multi-stakeholder-co-ops)

Picturetank – a Société Coopérative d’Intérêt Collectif (or SCIC) – is based on the photographers’ co-op Magnum, formed at the close of WW2 with the radical idea that the photographers (rather than the publications themselves) should hold copyright control of the images. However, Picturetank goes a step further with the involvement of all workers as well as photographers and outside supporters in a multi-stakeholder model.

Starting up with 15 photographers and a single web designer, the co-op hosted, managed and published their work through their website, Picturetank.com. As the organization rapidly grew to 100 photographers, clients began requesting commercial services such as marketing and management of sales, so they began to recruit more staff and offer more services, adopting a more organized, business-like approach. However, as they grew, founders were reluctant to give up the democracy and inclusiveness they had enjoyed since the co-op’s early days.

One of the main balancing acts that Picturetank must perform every day is between the needs of the individual member photographers and the needs of the agency as a whole. Picturetank’s founders wanted to provide a platform for affiliation, but stop short of full integration—they did not want to impose group standards or requirements on the artistic work of any one individual photographer.

“Co-ops reflect the triumph and struggle of democracy. Disagreement and conflict are as much a part of democracy as the power of collective action. Managing disagreement and resolving conflict in a productive fashion are part of crafting an effective democracy. While everyone knows the consequences of destructive conflict, the advantages of constructively managed conflict include greater understanding, enlightenment, and consensus.”  – from ‘Solidarity as a business model’ Co-operative Development Center, Kent State University, USA

Membership of a multi-stakeholder co-operative is organised in two or more stakeholder groups which might include consumers, producers, workers, volunteers or general community supporters. So rather than being organized around a single class of members, multi-stakeholder co-operatives have a more diverse membership base.  This means that the co-op’s mission – their reason for existing, can be broader than that of a co-op with just one class of stakeholder, and will recognise the interdependence of interests of stakeholders.

But how is it possible to reconcile the inherent conflict of interest between workers, for example, who we may assume will want the highest wages for their hours worked, and consumers who will be looking for lower prices?

If we look at one example of a single stakeholder model – the credit union, it’s clear that this happens every day, because while attempting to meet the needs of their members, credit unions must address the conflicting interests of borrowers who are looking for low interest rates and savers who want higher interest rates.

Multi-stakeholder co-operatives however celebrate a diversity of interests in the short term, and common needs in the long term, whilst recognizing their interdependency.

In Quebec, such cooperatives are called ‘Solidarity’ cooperatives specifically to highlight this organisational structure which emphasizes commonalities rather than focusing on differences.

elephant-blindfolded-peopleWe could contrast single stakeholder with multi-stakeholder co-ops in a scenario like this one of blindfolded people touching different parts of the elephant and finding that it’s like a fan, a spear, a tree, a rope or a snake. Each of them can only understand their own situation, and can’t see the big picture. We sometimes fail to recognise the interdependency of the different roles we play in the economy – I am a worker but I am also a consumer. Like I am a car driver (occasionally) but also a cyclist and a pedestrian.

Multi-stakeholder cooperatives by their nature seek out different information and new perspectives. But to be successful they also need to know how to share this information in ways that make it meaningful to members of the other groups. Co-operative skills – knowing how to communicate well, running effective meetings, understanding different approaches to taking decisions, knowing how to cope with the day to day conflicts and how to avoid unnecessary ones – these skills are essential for all co-ops, but especially so for multi-stakeholder co-ops.

Some of the examples we looked at in a recent workshop run by Cooperantics with Stir to Action included – along with Picturetank – multi-stakeholder co-operatives from a wide range of economic sectors:

Ecological Land Co-op purchases agricultural land and subdivides it into a number of ecologically managed residential smallholdings. ELC has three types of membership sharing voting rights:

  1. Investor Members invest money in the co-operative, have 25% of voting rights and receive returns on their investment;
  2. Worker Members are employees and volunteers, they also have 25% of voting rights
  3. Steward Members are ecological land managers and hold the remaining 50% of voting rights. Majority voting rights are awarded primarily to Steward Members as they are the principal beneficiaries but generally do not have the capacity to both run their smallholding and serve on the Board of Directors.

Black Star Co-op is the world’s first co-operatively owned and worker self-managed brewpub, owned by 3000 individuals. Incorporated in 2006 as a worker-consumer hybrid co-op, Black Star opened up for business in September 2010. Black Star aims to educate peers about cooperative ownership and values—while enjoying quality food and drinks.

GO-OP Co-operative was founded in 2009 as a multi-stakeholder co-operative based on the Somerset Rules. Its aim is to reduce the social and environmental impacts of travel by providing mutually owned, high quality and inclusive public transport services that encourage people to choose more sustainable options. Its ambition is to be the first co-operatively owned train operating company in the UK.

Weaver Street Market was founded in Carrboro, North Carolina in 1988, and has since become the largest retail multi-stakeholder cooperative in the United States, with 18,000 consumer households and 200 employee owners. It runs three grocery stores, a restaurant and a food production facility. This successful multi-stakeholder co-operative is owned and governed by consumer and worker members.

Webarchitects is a multi-stakeholder co-operative, with membership from clients, partners and investors as well as workers. It was set up in 2011 to provide internet based services for socially responsible groups and individuals. The co-op uses free open source software wherever possible, and aims to minimise fossil fuel usage and ecological impacts and provide sustainable employment.

Much inspiration for this blog was found reading the excellent guide to multi-stakeholder co-operatives produced by the Co-operative development Center at Kent State University in the U.S.: ‘Solidarity as a business model’. Highly recommended if you’d like to know more.

 

30. June 2016 · Comments Off on Leadership in co-operatives · Categories: Uncategorized

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Who’s afraid of leadership?

I was once at a housing co-op event, held to promote the co-op and recruit new members. All the members – 8 or 9 of us – turned up at the community centre to arrange the room and get ready for our audience. There were chairs stacked against the wall, and we all started lugging them to the centre of the room – but it was soon apparent – not just to us, but to the early arrivals who began to sit down, that we had no idea how to arrange the seating, no idea how many people would turn up, no previous agreement whether we would make rows of chairs or a big circle – it was chaos. So much so that some of us began to laugh to try to make a joke of it, while others got more and more frustrated and anxious. We finally got it sorted, but it was obvious we’d made a pretty negative impression on our audience who – no matter how impressive and persuasive our subsequent presentation – had had a clear demonstration of our inability to work as a team and our lack of leadership skills.

I have often remembered that moment and wondered why it happened like that. We were not totally lacking in team skills – in fact one of the impressive things about this group was the way in which they were able to pull together to organise things – but I think there was a fear of showing leadership. An idea that perhaps in a co-operative, showing leadership is wrong. I believe this is due to a misunderstanding about the nature of leadership, and an assumption that a ‘command and control’ style of leadership is the only way.

Leadership theories

Nothing can be further from the truth. It’s interesting to review the many theories of leadership but for our purposes here, let’s look at commonly-held assumptions about what leadership means and what leaders do. In ‘traditional’ hierarchically structured organisations, power is located at the top, and leaders lead from the front. Leaders have authority, take control and attract followers. Line managers tell people what to do, who then have others that they manage in turn. In such a structure it’s hard for individuals to be innovative and creative. Someone at the top who doesn’t understand the day to day realities of work at the ‘coal face’ takes decisions which workers may not agree with but must comply with if they want to keep their jobs. Of course employees can and should join a trade union which will support them and lobby and campaign to change things, but in some circumstances, confrontational approaches can be counter-productive.

So perhaps we need to get rid of the structure and the leaders and all decide everything together? Apart from the impracticability of such a step (you’d never get any work done) Jo Freeman, in ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ explains how misguided it is to assume that without a structure, there will be no leaders. Leaders will always emerge, attracting followers by dint of their charisma, power, or resources, but without a structure or a system of accountability, you’ll have no way of getting rid of them.

Leadership in worker co-operatives

So we need a structure. And of course co-operatives have such a structure, where people can be elected to a Management Committee, or Board of Directors, but will have a specific term of office, and will only be re-elected if members feel they are doing a good job. However, like every democracy, it only works if people have information accessible to them about how the co-op is doing and how successful it is in achieving business, social and environmental goals. The MC then is accountable to the members, but they will also need Terms of Reference so they understand their roles and their delegated powers.

Run the group delicately, as if you were cooking small fish”

So how do you show leadership in a worker co-operative?

In contrast to a typical hierarchy, leadership in a worker co-operative is collective. It’s not just the MC who need to be leaders – anyone can show leadership at any time. But what does this mean and how can it work?

The Tao of Leadership, by John Heider provides simple and clear advice on how to be an effective leader: be unbiased, trust the process, pay attention, and inspire others to become their own leaders. For example:

lead in a nourishing manner
  • give away control
  • look for opportunities to give others control
  • try to ensure that decisions are taken by the people most likely to be affected (subsidiarity)
lead without being possessive
  • lead by example rather than by telling people what to do
  • avoid egocentricity
  • be’ rather than ‘do
  • be aware of what is happening in the group and act accordingly

“specific actions are less important than the leader’s clarity or consciousness. This is why there are no exercises or formulas to ensure successful leadership”

be helpful without taking the credit
  • be modest, allow others to take the credit.
lead without coercion
  • promote collaboration
  • provide tools for collective working
  • clarify roles, authority and accountability
  • delegate
  • create an environment for thinking

“Run the group delicately, as if you were cooking small fish. Too much force will backfire; the leader who tries to control he group through force does not understand group process. The wise leader stays centred and grounded and uses the least force to act effectively”

The result will be thinking, passionately proactive and creative people who communicate effectively, who understand how to work as a team, how to respond positively to conflict and how to help new members feel at home and hit the ground running.

So in our housing co-op example, should we have been dreaming about the best seating layout for our meeting? Well perhaps not, of course there are circumstances where simply delegating a few tasks will avoid such a muddle. If someone had shown leadership by asking everyone what would be the best layout, then suggesting we divide up the tasks between us: someone to stick up notices so people know where to come, a couple of people organising chairs, a couple of people making tea, someone putting the recruitment leaflet on every chair – etc. Simple stuff, but someone does need to take that initial lead.

Here’s some useful reading on leadership in collectives by Alanna Krause

06. June 2016 · Comments Off on 1 week left to apply for Co-op support · Categories: Uncategorized

The Hive programme from Co-operatives UK (thehive.coop) is still open for applications for support until 13th June.  That’s just one week away.

As a reminder, we are providers to the programme, and through it, heavily subsidised support is available for existing co-ops and groups who are ready to form their new co-op.

  • One-to-one advice
  • Group advice
  • Peer mentoring
  • Training courses

Head over to the Hive and apply now!

08. April 2016 · Comments Off on Free and subsidised support for co-ops · Categories: Uncategorized

We are support providers for The Hive, a new business support programme for co-ops and community businesses.

Latest: Deadline for applications for the first round close on 13 June!

The Hive offers:ScreenShot_20160422125547

Through The Hive, we can deliver tailored advice for your co-op. Apply now (and please mention Cooperantics!)

We are happy to chat if you need help identifying your needs.http://www.uk.coop/the-hive/about/advice-and-training

30. March 2016 · Comments Off on some thoughts on leadership in co-ops · Categories: About Co-operatives, Communication skills, Meetings and decision making, Team Working, Uncategorized

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Who’s afraid of leadership?

I was once at a housing co-op event, held to promote the co-op and recruit new members. All the members – 8 or 9 of us – turned up at the community centre to arrange the room and get ready for our audience. There were chairs stacked against the wall, and we all started lugging them to the centre of the room – but it was soon apparent – not just to us, but to the early arrivals who began to sit down, that we had no idea how to arrange the seating, no idea how many people would turn up, no previous agreement whether we would make rows of chairs or a big circle – it was chaos. So much so that some of us began to laugh to try to make a joke of it, while others got more and more frustrated and anxious. We finally got it sorted, but it was obvious we’d made a pretty negative impression on our audience who – no matter how impressive and persuasive our subsequent presentation – had had a clear demonstration of our inability to work as a team and our lack of leadership skills.

I have often remembered that moment and wondered why it happened like that. We were not totally lacking in team skills – in fact one of the impressive things about this group was the way in which they were able to pull together to organise things – but I think there was a fear of showing leadership. An idea that perhaps in a co-operative, showing leadership is wrong. I believe this is due to a misunderstanding about the nature of leadership, and an assumption that a ‘command and control’ style of leadership is the only way.

Leadership theories

Nothing can be further from the truth. It’s interesting to review the many theories of leadership but for our purposes here, let’s look at commonly-held assumptions about what leadership means and what leaders do. In ‘traditional’ hierarchically structured organisations, power is located at the top, and leaders lead from the front. Leaders have authority, take control and attract followers. Line managers tell people what to do, who then have others that they manage in turn. In such a structure it’s hard for individuals to be innovative and creative. Someone at the top who doesn’t understand the day to day realities of work at the ‘coal face’ takes decisions which workers may not agree with but must comply with if they want to keep their jobs. Of course employees can and should join a trade union which will support them and lobby and campaign to change things, but in some circumstances, confrontational approaches can be counter-productive.

So perhaps we need to get rid of the structure and the leaders and all decide everything together? Apart from the impracticability of such a step (you’d never get any work done) Jo Freeman, in ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ explains how misguided it is to assume that without a structure, there will be no leaders. Leaders will always emerge, attracting followers by dint of their charisma, power, or resources, but without a structure or a system of accountability, you’ll have no way of getting rid of them.

Leadership in worker co-operatives

So we need a structure. And of course co-operatives have such a structure, where people can be elected to a Management Committee, or Board of Directors, but will have a specific term of office, and will only be re-elected if members feel they are doing a good job. However, like every democracy, it only works if people have information accessible to them about how the co-op is doing and how successful it is in achieving business, social and environmental goals. The MC then is accountable to the members, but they will also need Terms of Reference so they understand their roles and their delegated powers.

Run the group delicately, as if you were cooking small fish”

So how do you show leadership in a worker co-operative?

In contrast to a typical hierarchy, leadership in a worker co-operative is collective. It’s not just the MC who need to be leaders – anyone can show leadership at any time. But what does this mean and how can it work?

The Tao of Leadership, by John Heider provides simple and clear advice on how to be an effective leader: be unbiased, trust the process, pay attention, and inspire others to become their own leaders. For example:

lead in a nourishing manner
  • give away control
  • look for opportunities to give others control
  • try to ensure that decisions are taken by the people most likely to be affected (subsidiarity)
lead without being possessive
  • lead by example rather than by telling people what to do
  • avoid egocentricity
  • be’ rather than ‘do
  • be aware of what is happening in the group and act accordingly

“specific actions are less important than the leader’s clarity or consciousness. This is why there are no exercises or formulas to ensure successful leadership”

be helpful without taking the credit
  • be modest, allow others to take the credit.
lead without coercion
  • promote collaboration
  • provide tools for collective working
  • clarify roles, authority and accountability
  • delegate
  • create an environment for thinking

“Run the group delicately, as if you were cooking small fish. Too much force will backfire; the leader who tries to control he group through force does not understand group process. The wise leader stays centred and grounded and uses the least force to act effectively”

The result will be thinking, passionately proactive and creative people who communicate effectively, who understand how to work as a team, how to respond positively to conflict and how to help new members feel at home and hit the ground running.

So in our housing co-op example, should we have been dreaming about the best seating layout for our meeting? Well perhaps not, of course there are circumstances where simply delegating a few tasks will avoid such a muddle. If someone had shown leadership by asking everyone what would be the best layout, then suggesting we divide up the tasks between us: someone to stick up notices so people know where to come, a couple of people organising chairs, a couple of people making tea, someone putting the recruitment leaflet on every chair – etc. Simple stuff, but someone does need to take that initial lead.

Here’s some useful reading on leadership in collectives by Alanna Krause

29. March 2016 · Comments Off on About Co-operantics · Categories: About Co-operantics, About Co-operatives, Uncategorized

hoot if you're a cooperatorCo-operative skills aren’t just for co-operatives! We believe that these skills – developed in co-operatives of all kinds – can be useful for any groups of people wishing to work together to solve problems or achieve social goals. Of course we consider the co-operative to be the best model for any kind of enterprise, with social aims at its heart and democratic ownership and control its body – but our aim is to promote co-operative ways of working throughout all sectors of the economy.

Co-operantics Mission

To improve co-operative skills* in co-operatives. To promote and develop cooperative skills throughout all sectors of the economy and sections of society.

*Co-operative skills include communication, running effective meetings, decision-making, coping with conflict, negotiation and team working.

Co-operantics can save you money!

Through learning and practising co-operative skills, workers will be able to reduce workplace tensions and solve conflict, thus saving personnel time and avoiding the need for costly employment tribunals. They will learn how to:

  • give and receive criticism assertively
  • cope with the inevitable conflicts that arise and avoid unnecessary conflict
  • use techniques of principled negotiation
  • make it easy for new members to participate

Other benefits include meetings that are more decisive and more amicable, leading to decisions people will commit to and won’t subvert

How we work:

Workshops

Our half-day workshops are highly participative and interactive. It’s accelerated learning with materials available for download in advance. Topics include communication, meetings and decisions, conflict management, techniques of principled negotiation and team working.

Consultancy support

We are experience co-operative support practitioners and can provide a range of co-operative business support services, some of which can be viewed here.

Coaching

We offer coaching for individuals and small groups to explore issues around communications, assertiveness, confrontation and negotiation. Coaching can also be used to support project planning, setting goals, implementation, monitoring and evaluation. Coaching can be face to face or via phone calls and email.

Facilitation

We are often asked to facilitate meetings in co-operatives where there has been a breakdown of communications of some kind, and the co-operative needs someone who will be neutral but who also understands the dynamics of co-operative working. We also facilitate members’ days, team-building events and participative planning events.

Downloads

Throughout this website there are free downloads – tools, tips and techniques for improving co-operative working. These will be of special interest to anyone attending a workshop, since they will be able to download and read them beforehand.

Co-operantics Code of Conduct

Co-operantics is itself a co-operative, so in order to fulfil our mission we will abide by international co-operative principles and values.

We will maintain professional co-operative business advice standards, once they are developed and implemented, indeed we will play our part in developing and agreeing those standards. We will regularly review and update our knowledge, skills and experience, attending CPD events, sharing best practice and encouraging peer learning amongst cooperatives and co-operative business advisers.

We will always respect our clients and act in their best interests, seeking to build capacity rather than developing dependency, whilst recognising that it may be in our clients’ interests to utilise our skills rather than acquire those skills themselves.

We will always respect client confidentiality.

Co-operantics members will declare any conflicts of interest where they exist. If a Co-operantics member has ethical concerns with a particular cooperative or sector of the economy, the work will be passed to another member, unless it is in conflict with Co-operative Principles, in which case the work will be declined.

We will at all times abide by Co-operantics Equal Opportunities & Diversity Policy, assessing achievement of goals and targets in an annual review.

We will at all times abide by Co-operantics Environmental policy, assessing achievement of goals and targets in an annual review.

We have a compliments and complaints policy to ensure we gather feedback on our services.

About us

Kate WhittleKate Whittle has been working in the social economy for over 20 years, both in the UK and in the Dominican Republic, where she worked as a volunteer with a federation of co-operatives in the Cibao.

Kate at cooperativa Amor y Paz large

She has worked with co-operatives of all kinds, social enterprises, voluntary organisations and co-operative development agencies. From 1999 to 2004 she was an Associate at the Co-operative College. From 2003 to 2005 she served on the Board of the Phone Co-op. In 2003, together with Bob Cannell and David Dean, Kate founded  Co-operative Business Consultants aiming to promote participative and co-operative management. Together with Nathan Brown and Alex Lawrie of Somerset Co-operative Services, she developed and taught the Understanding Co-operative Enterprise Unit of the ILM accredited VRQ Level 5 training programme for UK co-operative business advisers. Kate also acts as the Internal Verifier for Jim Brown’s ILM accredited VRQ Level 5 Certificate and Diploma in Social Enterprise Support. Kate was commissioned by Co-operatives UK to develop and run Co-operative Skills Seminars for UK worker co-ops. Kate designed and taught the Strategic Planning and Managing Change seminar. The training was very well received by some of the UK’s largest worker co-ops: Suma, Infinity, Delta-T, Essential Trading and Unicorn Co-operative Grocery.

Kate is the Secretary of GO-OP Co-operative, aiming to be the first co-operatively owned open access train operator in the UK, and a member of The Phone Co-op, Sims Hill CSA, Bristol Credit Union and the Bristol Pound.

Kate says:

“Over the years I have collected masses of useful information, tools and techniques for co-operative working, the sources of which are now lost in the mists of time. Some of the material has been adapted from ‘Organisational Issues in Democratically Managed Businesses’, a collection of training materials published by ICOM in 1992. (ICOM was the UK federation of worker co-operatives which merged with the Co-operative Union to form Co-operatives UK in 2000). This small collection of tips, tools and techniques for co-operative working is just a start. We will add more materials over time, and we hope that colleagues and clients will contribute to the development of this site.  If you have other materials you think should be available here, please let us know, we’ll be happy to acknowledge the source, or send us a link to your website.”

Nathan Brown of Co-operantics

Nathan Brown of Co-operantics

Nathan Brown has been working in the co-operative development sector for over 15 years. His hands on experience as a co-op member includes management roles in a Housing Co-operative, Credit Union, Worker Co-operative, Consortium Co-operative and Multi-Stakeholder Co-operative in addition to participating in various informal music, housing and food collectives since he was a teenager.   Nathan is a Director of Olmec Co-operative CIC, South East Co-operative Support Limited, and is also Secretary of a Society for the Benefit of the Community.  He is still a member of the Phone Co-op, the Co-operative and 2 unincorporated food co-ops and served for 12 years as a voluntary Committee member and Research Officer for a national campaign organisation.  He holds a Certificate in Training Practice (IPD) and Certificate in Social Enterprise Support (ILM)

Nathan says:

“I believe that co-operation is a natural choice for anyone with a bone of social justice or humanity in their body.  As children, on our estate we even formed a sweet buying group with its own street stall (less Rochdale Pioneers and more Bash Street Kids) but that’s another story!  The simple, effective, technology of co-operatives can be easily de-railed by competitive behaviours that are nurtured by society – focusing on what makes us different rather than what we hold in common. Co-operantics aims to help people get back on the rails and make their co-op a success.”

14. January 2016 · Comments Off on The People’s Railway – first thoughts from a co-operative perspective · Categories: About Co-operatives, Uncategorized

21st January sees the 4th Ways Forward Conference in Manchester: ‘Building an Economy to Serve People not Profit’. Follow developments on twitter at #WF4.

The conference – organised by Co-operative Business Consultants – aims to explore and debate responses to the challenges presented by Jeremy Corbyn’s call for democratic co-operative management of the public sector and other national industries, such as the railways and the energy sector:

  • Exploring how workers and users can be effectively involved in public sector management
  • Facing up to management capture as a major challenge for co-operatives
  • Considering Co-operative viability in the global economy

I’m facilitating the ‘People’s Railway’ session, with speakers Christian Wolmar, award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport and the author of a series of books on railway history and John Tilley, RMT Regional Organiser, Norttrain_image2.jpgh West & Eire Regions.

So I’ve started considering the issues from a co-operative perspective, and of course they are many and significant. (Thanks to Jean Nunn-Price and Alex Lawrie of www.go-op.coop for input).

  • Perhaps the biggest question is what could replace the present franchising system? Franchises are a high stakes gamble and for a co-operative the stakes are too high. No co-op could justify to its members the multi-million pound gamble that is tendering for a franchise. We need a different system, such as for example micro-franchises? Or core routes state-owned, and other routes open access?
  • Then what could be the role for co-operatives? Co-operatives need to be entrepreneurial, and that means they need to be able to alter their geographical remit at will, as business opportunities permit. So their role might be to complement a national publically owned and democratically accountable rail service.

As ever, a focus on international co-operative principles provides a useful starting point:

  • Autonomy: a co-operative is an independent organisation, not owned or linked to the state or any other organisation
  • Democratic Member Control: Who would be the members? The main stakeholders would be:

o   Travelling public

o   Staff &/or Trade Unions

o   Investors

So the co-operative could have representation from each category – which suggests some form of multi-stakeholder co-operative. GO-OP Co-operative is a bona fide co-operative, registered using Somerset Rules, and has User (passengers and employees) and Non-user (investor) classes of shares, and voting arrangements are organised such that the User members always retain control of the co-operative.

  • Membership in a co-operative is voluntary – no-one can be forced to join. So what about staff who don’t want to join?
  • Member Economic Participation: You wouldn’t have to be a member to travel, but member benefits, for example dividend on spend, need to be part of the deal.  Of course members will be able to choose Directors and attend the AGM.  There could also be local member groups to give feedback on the quality of the service and hold social events.
  • Organisational structure: UK Railway management is structured on a hierarchical model, with pay structures that are highly inequitable. How could management structures be converted to a more equitable model without losing experienced staff?
  • Collaboration with other rail industry organisations – specifically Network Rail: Network Rail would need to be re-structured to become democratic and accountable to its passengers. The Co-op Party has called for Network Rail to become a consumer mutual, where passengers would be represented on the Board, be involved in the development of a strategic plan and have powers to control remuneration and appoint and dismiss the Chair and non-executive directors.

These are just some of the issues that need to be considered – but I’d be glad to hear thoughts and comments from co-operators & and anyone interested in making our railways more efficient, democratic and accountable.

Kate Whittle, January 2016

@cooperantics

09. December 2015 · Comments Off on Can co-ops offer their members a better work/life balance? · Categories: About Co-operatives, Strategic planning, Uncategorized

In private enterprise 58% of those in full time work believe they have no influence in the workplace, increasing to 70% for part-timers. (Source: YouGov polling, commissioned by Co-operatives UK May 2015). So it’s only if your employer offers good terms and conditions of employment, including flexible hours, that you will be able to benefit from good work life balance. And of course in private enterprise, employers need to prioritise return on investment for owners and shareholders.

Co-operatives on the other hand are run for the benefit of their members. So in worker co-operatives, where employees are the members, we might assume that one of the benefits on offer would be working hours flexible enough to ensure that members can meet family, education, leisure and social commitments – in other words, a good work life balance.

But there are different types of co-operatives – offering membership to tenants, savers or consumers – and it’s useful to distinguish between them. Consumer retail co-operatives (the familiar high street ‘Co-op’) are run for the benefit of the consumer – or shopper. They are managed like any other supermarket, except that profits are shared with members rather than external shareholders, and members can be elected to the Members’ Council and have a say on business issues. Although employees can be members, the co-operative is not run primarily for their benefit. Issues like work life balance will be covered in a contract of employment and dealt with through the HR department.

In a worker co-op however, the members are the employees and the co-operative is run primarily for their benefit. Members will have influence in the workplace, and will be able to contribute to discussions on the products or services that are sold, on the way work is carried out and on terms and conditions of employment, including work life balance.

“If only …”

But does it happen? Frustratingly, it can be challenging for worker co-op members to be able to achieve good work life balance, for several reasons, for example:

  • In the start-up period, founder members will often work for very low or no pay, in order to get the co-operative off the ground, so any talk of work life balance will be accompanied by a rueful smile …
  • Members have a responsibility to contribute to management decision making, leaving less time for other commitments
  • the co-op may decide to support the local community or people on low incomes and keep their own wages to a minimum, so members may need to work long hours
  • there may be a limited understanding of the enterprising nature of co-operatives, with a lack of research into potential markets which could provide the financial sustainability to permit members to achieve better work life balance
  • the co-op may be going through a period of change, cutting back on costs in certain areas to spend on new premises, additional equipment or raw materials

How easy is it for members of a large worker co-op to achieve good work life balance? Bristol’s Essential Trading is a worker co-op with over 80 members and is one of the UK’s ‘top 100 Co-ops’ according to Co-operatives UK.

Richard Crook from Essential says:

“… the realities of running a democratic business mean there are increased time demands over and above operational needs that might ordinarily be expected from an employee. Things like reading minutes, attending meetings, writing proposals, reading proposals, dealing with ‘people management’ issues, etc. all seem to add to the ‘work’ side of the see-saw – but at the same time because they can occupy the cerebral side of work rather than the physical, they do have an annoying habit of popping into one’s head during what should be ‘life’ time. Hence it often feels like the line is blurred between ‘work’ and ‘life’ in a worker co-op. People do really commit to the worker co-op they are members of, arguably sometimes too much for their own health and well-being, but this is done I think because they feel they are genuinely contributing to something alternative and often life-changing.”

What we can do to help co-ops be more sustainable?

Join them! Co-ops make an important contribution to the solidarity economy, they have an important part to play in that they (especially worker co-ops) offer an alternative form of business to the capitalist model. Business doesn’t have to be like Dragons Den or The Apprentice!

Buy goods and services from them! Co-operantics has (home) offices in Southampton & Bristol and in Bristol that means saving with Bristol Credit Union, buying organic vegetables from Sims Hill Shared Harvest, , eating in Café Kino! Showing international solidarity at Kebele, enjoying music & workshops at The Folk House, reading news and views via The Bristol Cable, getting open source ICT from Bristol Wireless, going to the movies with Cube Cinema, reading about Re-enchanting the Forest with Vala Publishing, taking a trip round the harbour on a Bristol Ferry Boat, buying wood from Bristol Recycled Wood Co-op, and wooden gifts, logs and charcoal from Forest of Avon Products. We also get electricity from Co-operative Energy and phone & internet through the Phone Co-op (also the only UK supplier of the Fairphone – the first mobile phone made with materials from non-conflict zones). And too many more to mention – check out the CUK Directory for more UK co-ops.

So let’s do it! Let’s make 2016 the most ‘co-opy’ year yet!

Seasons Greetings and all the best in 2016 from Co-operantics.

21. October 2015 · Comments Off on How to set up a Freelancers Co-op · Categories: About Co-operatives, Uncategorized

The rise of the “precariat” is well documented. Young people find themselves freelancing more and more (not just young people we might add!) and there is a real desire for structures that provide solidarity and insulation from the poor treatment an individual can suffer at the hands of unscrupulous quasi-employers or customers.  A Freelancers Co-op can be many things. It can provide marketing of members’ services to customers with more reach and punch than an individual; the ability to tender for larger pieces of work; a “whole offer” for customers combining the skills of many members in one package; back office services like invoicing, accounts or factoring; shared office space; mutual support etc.  Whatever the members want to source or provide collaboratively can be made available to members either as a “take it or leave it” offer or as a menu of services.

Having met when we co-delivered a weekend workshop with Alt Gen for young people setting up co-ops as part of the Stir To Action summer events programme, Jonny from Stir To Action asked if we could put together an overview of the key steps people might take to put together a freelancers’ co-op, to empower, inform and inspire people.  Jonny got one of the STIR designers to turn our clunky diagram into a thing of beauty (excerpt below).  We will make it available in the new year (update: available as PDF to download) but meanwhile if you want to see the goods you need to order the magazine.

Freelancer Co-op Guide excerpt

12. October 2015 · Comments Off on Strategic planning in worker co-operatives · Categories: About Co-operatives, Communication skills, Strategic planning

or ‘How to make God laugh’ – Woody Allen

Participative strategic planning is a means for engaging all members in planning the future direction of the co-operative business. In this way we can avoid conflicts caused by lack of information or misunderstandings about ‘how we do things here’. It’s strategic planning done in a co-operative, collaborative and participative way.

Strategic planning is a way of coping with change and planning for the future. It aims to accomplish three tasks:

  1. to explore and clarify direction for the medium to long term, identifying desired outcomes
  2. to select broad strategies that will enable the co-operative to achieve those outcomes
  3. to identify ways to measure progress

Co-operatives use the process to build member commitment by involving them in the creation of the plan, but how you go about it will depend on your co-op’s structure, how long you have been established, your economic sector and the complexity of your business

One approach is to hold an annual Away Day aiming to integrate new members, facilitate interaction between different teams, and discuss co-operative performance and future plans.

It’s helpful to clarify the language of strategic planning before you start – so you can at least agree a common understanding. For example:

Strategic work is about where you want to go, it’s about the long term and involves setting aims and objectives, goals and outcomes – or draining the swamp?

Tactical is about how you’re going to get there, agreeing a route or a map. It’s more reactive and perhaps opportunistic, involving setting milestones towards the achievement of goals and organising timetables, action plans and rotas.

Operational is about the journey, it focuses on the short term day to day outputs, crisis management and fire-fighting – or fighting the crocodiles?

So make sure you look up from time to time from fighting the crocodiles to see if you can find time to drain the swamp!

Key questions for strategic planning:

  • are your co-operative vision and values clear, agreed and owned?
  • how well do you understand the market? Is it growing, shrinking, or flat-lining?
  • how well-informed are you about suppliers & competitors?
  • how fit is the co-operative organisation? Purring along nicely or bit bumpy?
  • are members ready to act?

 Strategic planning – beyond the systems approach

In a recent (2014 & 2015) Co-operative Skills Seminar on Strategic planning for worker co-operatives, we discussed how existing management tools are inadequate for worker co-ops, since they are based on ‘systems’ thinking, which assumes controllers and controlled. Instead of thinking about organisations as machines, controlled by managers pulling levers, Ralph Stacey of the University of Hertfordshire talks instead about ‘complex responsive processes’ with high participation and constant change. He describes organisations (including co-operatives) as processes of human relationships and communication where people create and are created by the organisation and where no one can plan or control this interplay.

The seminars presented some tools and techniques based on this understanding of business as a series of interactions and conversations between people at all levels of the business.

Tools and techniques for participative strategic planning

Active Business Planning uses project management techniques, researching information on size and characteristics of the market, acceptable pricing, level of sales, etc. simultaneously and using the knowledge gained in one area to amend others. Active business planning uses a timeline (GANNT) chart to identify the dates of starting and ending each business planning action.

Agile is an approach to business planning based on techniques typically used in software development as a response to unpredictability. In contrast to traditional project management, with its sequence of: define aims – market research – product development – market strategy – implement strategy, the Agile approach is iterative and incremental, with all activities blending into several iterations and adapting to discovered realities at fixed intervals.

RISK ANALYSIS is a slightly different approach, involving looking at all the risks to your co-operative business and quantifying them in a table according to:

    1. How likely is it to occur?
    2. What impact would it have on the business if it did occur?

You then multiply (1.) by (2.) to get a rough and ready way to prioritise action. The final two columns in the table encourage you to think about how to prevent the risk from happening and if it does happen anyway, how to minimise the impact on your business.

Appreciative Inquiry is a more positive, ‘glass half full’ approach. It involves four stages:

  1. DISCOVERY Focus on what’s working, build on success. What are our strengths? What do we enjoy? What do we want to do more of?
  2. DREAM Use our strengths and what we want to do to create a shared vision of the future – what might be?
  3. DESIGN Co-create a design to make it happen, based on our values & principles
  4. DELIVERY What will be? Sustain the vision through empowering people, learning, adjusting, improvising

Check Co-operatives UK for information on when the Co-operative Skills Seminar series will be repeated. Along with Strategic Planning the series includes:

  1. Communication
  2. How to manage without a Manager
  3. Communication and working with conflict
  4. Being a Good Co-op Member