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Cooperantics
19. February 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Uncategorized

Our Home page hosts 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 (see links) you will find free tips, tools and techniques to help you work together more effectively, information on our services and how to get in touch.

There’s been a lot of talk about co-operative governance and culture recently, so when our friend and fellow co-operator Siôn Whellens, of worker co-operative Calverts Design & Print, said “Co-operative culture eats co-operative governance for breakfast” it got us thinking ..

And so during Co-operatives Fortnight, Co-operantics talked to seven very different co-operatives, with the aim of exploring how co-ops develop and maintain a strong co-operative culture. We found a range of approaches, differing according to member relationship and size of co-op. Clearly the challenges facing a large consumer co-operative, with members meetings at most quarterly and communications between meetings restricted to the odd newsletter are different to those of a small worker co-op, where people spend all day every day together. Perhaps this is why the issue of co-operative culture is such a live one in worker co-op circles, since they have to make it work to survive.

“…the culture created the policies and the culture is the thing that keeps us checking the policies, otherwise we’d probably forget about them. The most powerful influence is practice and custom”

Cath Muller, Footprint

The first thing we observed was that ‘culture’ is there anyway, cultural norms, custom and practice will be a strong influence on your members whatever you do, and it’s up to you to make sure that it’s a strong ‘co-operative culture’ that is being nurtured and absorbed by your new members. Here’s some Top Tips to help you do just that.

  1. Shared vision

Make sure that everyone knows not just what you do but how you do it. Strategy sessions, regular communications such as newsletters, publicity and promotional materials, your website – all can highlight your shared values and vision of how you do things. The Phone Co-op makes it abundantly clear in all its materials that the reason it offers good quality services is because it is run by its members.

  1. Excellent communications

We agree with Suma’s Bob Cannell, who quoting Ralph Stacey says that organisations (including co-ops) are best described as a collection of processes of human relationships and communication. Some worker co-ops use multiskilling and job rotation to ensure that members are aware of what is happening in different departments. Suma are considering providing training to improve people’s interpersonal communications skills. Good communication is central to being a successful co-operative business.

  1. Induction of new members

Vital for ensuring that new members ‘get’ the culture as quickly as possible. ‘Sitting next to Annie’ might seem a practical approach but it is not enough, and Annie might be a bit cynical, and know her way round the rules, with a damaging effect on morale and initiative. No, take the training of new members seriously, provide them with a mentor or buddy and recognise that not everything can be taught, a lot will be picked up by watching people’s behaviour in the workplace and during meetings. Some co-ops start the process before people are even members, and Radical Routes co-ops in particular benefit from shared cultural values.

“Writing down what you and other co-op members have been doing over the past three months can help reinforce co-op cohesion and culture”

Jane Ferrie, Mary Ann Johnson Housing Co-op

The Conversations highlighted a range of ways in which new members learn co-operative culture: observing other members in the workplace, during meetings, being part of decision-making, working together, training, mentoring, buddying, writing and involvement in the wider co-operative movement (especially Radical Routes co-ops).

  1. Structured and appropriate approach

Whatever your approach, it needs to be structured, otherwise ‘an awful lot’ can ‘fall between the cracks’ with members taking ‘a long time to feel comfortable enough to speak up’. You have a responsibility to teach new people how to do something no-one learns in school. Most people don’t go to meetings where 20, 30 or 50 people sit around in a room and discuss things. It can be intimidating! But we can learn how to do it, and you can adopt ways to make it less intimidating, such as using small group discussions as part of a larger plenary.

  1. Ignore Co-operative Principles at Your Peril!

- for example Principle 5: Education, training and information. If you are finding collective working a challenge there may be a temptation to resort to hierarchy, which can create a new set of problems and diminish self-responsibility. If a collective approach isn’t working, maybe members don’t know what is expected of them, how they’re supposed to behave or they need support or training.

  1. The Member Job Description (or Member Agreement)

A Member Job Description can be a useful resource. It sets out what co-op members expect of each other (and themselves). It could include what you can expect from your co-op, and what the co-op in turn expects from you. It could include norms of behaviour in meetings – for example we expect members to have read the papers and turn up on time, to have an opinion and to be prepared to share it. To be ready to attend training or to learn the ‘core tasks’ that we have agreed everyone needs to know how to do. It’s up to you!

So, finally, Siôn was right – co-operative culture does indeed eat co-operative governance for breakfast!

This doesn’t mean that governance isn’t important – far from it. Written policies and procedures are

  • helpful for new members getting to grips with how things work
  • essential for saving time – you can look it up, no need to hold a meeting!
  • and a guide to what has been agreed in the past, so you know where you are when changes in the co-op’s external environment affect how you do things.

Thanks to all the co-operators who took part in Co-operantics Conversations: Cath Muller,of Footprint Workers Co-op, David Charles of Sanford Housing Co-op, Dave Morris of Hamwic Housing Co-op, Jane Ferrie, of Mary Ann Johnson Housing Co-op, Amanda Beard of The Phone Co-op, Sion Whellens of Calverts Design & Print Co-op and Bob Cannell of Suma Wholefoods Co-op.

Conversation #7 is with Bob Cannell of Suma Wholefoods.

Suma is the UK’s largest worker co-operative and largest independent ethical wholesaler and distributor. It is the market leader in the wholesale natural grocery market.

Founded in 1976, they have been operating from Elland in Yorkshire since 2001. They are also the largest single pay organisation in Europe with all 190 workers earning the same hourly rate regardless of whether they are picking orders, working in personnel or developing new products.

Last year saw another record-breaking set of accounts as Suma turned over £34 million with sales throughout the UK, and to over 50 countries internationally. Suma is run democratically by members, and was awarded Co-operative of the Year 2014.

Hi Bob,

My first question is:

Q:               Which is a more powerful influence on members’ behaviour in your co-op – Rules or policies & procedures – or culture within the membership?

A:                It’s a mixture of all three at Suma. We agree basic principles and on some issues quite detailed rules (e.g. good behaviour) because members are very concerned about those things. Over time habitual behaviour does build up custom and practice which sometimes takes over from old rules agreed in the old days.

And there is a Suma culture but it’s a shifting fog when you try to say what it is. We tend to ask members what they want in terms of behaviour. Eg the Suma member job description merely set down how members wanted their colleagues to act as members (and by inference themselves too). It’s recently been refreshed by popular participation and a couple of changes made.

Essentially what is important is the real living relationships between people which is a constantly shifting web of complex processes of relating. You can’t write them down in set rules but you can agree limits to behaviour. You have to understand that blindly following rules will cause more trouble than good. In coops there is no Big Daddy or Big Mummy boss to force employees to be like obedient but surly children obeying ‘their stupid rules’.

So members in a worker coop will suddenly revolt against their own democratically agreed rules. It’s exciting.

Q:               How do new recruits ‘learn’ the prevailing culture of the co-operative? Here’s some ideas for starters:

  • Observing colleagues during the working day
  • ‘water cooler’ or lunch break gossip
  • Behaviour of members in meetings
  • Ease of participation in meetings
  • During the induction process

 A:                All of the above. We spend nine months training people to be Suma members before they are voted in (or occasionally not). There is always explicit culture which can be taught and implicit culture which is under the surface and can only be experienced.

Suma trial members (as we call our trainees) work alongside members and colleagues from day one and we expect them to talk and find out ‘what’s really going on’ and to talk to their minder (mentor) or to us in Personnel at their reviews.

It’s great when a TM says ‘you said Suma was xxx and it’s not!’ And we say ‘now you understand the paradoxical nature of this place. Everything is to be played for and you need to become a player and not a bystander if you are to be a proper participating member. If you don’t like what you experience try and change it!’

Q:               What might be the pros and cons of the various ways in which new recruits learn your culture?

A:                This is the classic ‘learning from Annie’ idea in HR lore. Annie is the most experienced worker but she’s also really cynical about the show, also knows all the cuttable corners, all the ways round the rules etc. So just throwing them into the deep end can have a catastrophic effect on morale and initiative.

In Suma the most difficult thing to learn is how to get changes made (at any level or significance). The only way to do that is by experience of trying. It’s like punching fog or struggling with an octopus or goading a cart horse ( if you are too aggressive it will kick you). So learn from other members’ experience and try not to make all the same mistakes.

Mentoring is crucial for many triallees as we call our trainees. Person to person communication is the thing. Don’t talk about people, talk to them.

Much traditional HR is about doing things to people or forcing them to fill prescribed boxes (competences for example). We want our trainees to surprise us with things we hadn’t imagined, new ideas that are ‘outside the box’ and then put those ideas into action if they can and learn from the experience for future attempts.

Q:               Have you considered other ways you might adopt?

A:                Yes, we are always on the lookout for new ideas. Worker coops are such weird places of employment. All kinds of standard HR techniques just don’t work. Performance appraisals for example don’t work with multi-skilled self-managing members. Think about the power relations in a normal appraisal and you can see why.

Disciplinary and especially grievance processes can and do destroy worker coops by disrupting the internal relationships to such a degree that managing the business becomes impossible. So we pioneered the use of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) techniques such as mediation, conciliation and arbitration instead. Bad behaviour has to be controlled – but not by Big Daddy. There is no hidden boss to make these procedures work.

More recently we are getting into how we can improve our members’ interpersonal communication skills. Yorkshire folk are not known for Italian level conversational skills. But it is in everyday conversation that the practical management and governance of worker coops gets done. If you can’t have that awkward conversation with your annoying colleague you just suffer in sullen silence for years. And the level of cooperation in your team and the coop suffers.

Q:               Do you use a member job description?

A:                I think we invented the concept of a member job description in 1995. It’s a crucial and central part of our Suma culture and underpins all our people processes from recruitment to retirement.

It’s in use all over. I find bits of it in documents from US and Canadian worker coops as well as in the UK. If anyone would like a copy of the new one please email me bob[at]suma.coop.

Q:               What changes have you seen in your co-operative’s culture over time? Why do you think this is and what do you think the causes have been?

A:                People have become more interested in pay and security and maybe less in ethics and principles. Not surprising given the state of the economy outside. Suma is a little haven of good jobs. There are fewer political worker coop warriors like me these days who believe worker cooperation is a revolutionary activity. But I’m seeing some welcome signs of a strengthening demand for economic democracy amongst younger people in the aftermath of the tax avoidance scandals and the obscene concentration of wealth in the 1%

Suma is a great example to them that it is possible for working people to run their own businesses without an executive elite so we can enjoy the full fruits of our labour

Thanks a lot Bob!

Check out Suma Wholefoods and follow Suma @SumaWholefoods & Bob @bobcannell

Don’t forget, you can find lots of tools, tips and techniques for building and nurturing a strong co-operative culture right here (see links above). Or contact us if you’d like us to run a workshop, or provide consultancy support, advice or guidance on co-operative skills. More information on our services can be found here.

 

10. July 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Uncategorized

Our (nearly) last Conversation is with the wonderfully energetic Cath Muller of Footprint Workers Co-operative based at Cornerstone Resource Centre, Chapeltown, Leeds. Cath is also a member of Co-operative Business Consultants. Footprint was set up in July 2000 to provide printing services to the highest possible ethical and environmental standards. They strive to make printing as affordable as possible and offer a wide range of quality depending on budget and the desired look and feel of the printed matter.

Hi Cath, thanks for finding the time to talk to us! My first question:

Q:               Which is a more powerful influence on members’ behaviour in your co-op – Rules or policies & procedures – or culture within the membership?

 A:                Not a straightforward answer – the culture created the policies and the culture is the thing that keeps us checking the policies, otherwise we’d probably forget about them. The most powerful influence is practice and custom.

 Q:               How do new recruits ‘learn’ the prevailing culture of the co-operative?

 A:                We’re a very small co-op and we all work part-time, so new recruits are usually right in at the deep end with taking responsibility and being part of decision-making. Our meetings are very informal, unfacilitated affairs, but there’s a lot of question-asking. We’ve also got a culture of trying to identify why things have gone wrong, including a fuck-ups spreadsheet, on which we enter details of our own mistakes and other people’s if they’re not in that day. We also commonly come up with ideas for how things could be better. We don’t vote on anything, just use informal consensus. The recruitment process itself is heavy on communicating the culture, including interviewing over lunch. We’re also proud of being a workers co-op and politics get discussed a lot, and I’m always on about co-op stuff, so there’s an explicit, constantly reinforced ethos. We’re also members of Radical Routes, so all members have to attend gatherings every so often and do Radical Routes work contribution.

 Q:               What might be the pros and cons of the various ways in which new recruits learn your culture?

 A:                You might think there’d be informal hierarchy issues, but I really don’t think there are, because we each do nearly all the tasks associated with the business, so there’s no hierarchy of knowledge in that way (or at least not for too long). Everyone’s got access to the cash-tin and the accounts software, everyone can update the manual, everyone can pick up everyone else on errors. It’s hard for me to judge, as I’ve never been a new recruit in the business!

 Q:               Have you considered other ways you might adopt?

 A:                Can’t think that we have!

 Q:               Do you use a member job description?

 A:                No – I think we might have written one once, but I don’t remember it being referred to, once someone’s in post. I think it’s the kind of thing that’s needed when people have more individual responsibility or there’s a clear division of labour. As it is, we know that whatever it is, we’re all responsible for it. If we were bigger we’d probably consider it, but at the moment it’s not necessary, we’re all on the same page I think.

 Q:               What changes have you seen in your co-operative’s culture over time? Why do you think this is and what do you think the causes have been?

 A:                People are more likely to work longer hours – partly because we have more work, partly because some of the current members of the co-op want more money than the founder members did – not sure why this is, I guess they have bigger outgoings. Also the culture is significantly affected by each person, as we’re small – we’re more into music-related and zine-related work than politics and co-op stuff, although there’s still a large proportion of that. We’re slightly less sociable with each other outside of work, but that’s just because the current crop aren’t so close and are all interested in different things. And we’ve all got partners, I guess that makes a difference!

 Thanks a lot Cath!

 Check out Footprint Workers Co-op

So what do you think? Do you have any thoughts, opinions, experience to share? We’d love to hear your comments or questions. Or if you would like to join in the ‘Conversations’ then answer the questions above, (feel free to add any further thoughts) and send to:
kate [at] cooperantics.coop
we’ll be happy to have a Conversation with you!

Don’t forget, you can find lots of tools, tips and techniques for building and nurturing a strong co-operative culture right here (see links above). Or contact us if you’d like us to run a workshop, or provide consultancy support, advice or guidance on co-operative skills. More information on our services can be found here.

 

09. July 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: About Co-operatives, Communication skills

Co-operantics Conversations #5 is with David Charles of Sanford Housing Co-op – the oldest purpose-built housing co-operative in London. Founded in 1973, it has been transformed from a wasteland into a cosy, green and welcoming environment. Sanford Walk is home to 125 tenants, living in 14 houses and 6 flats.

Hi David,
Thanks for speaking to us. My first question is:

Q: In your view, which is a more powerful influence on members’ behaviour – policies, procedures and rules or a co-operative ‘culture’ within the membership?

A: The co-operative culture.

Q: How do new members ‘learn’ the prevailing culture of the co-operative?

A: Behaviour of members, not just in meetings, but generally. We have very little in the way of inductions.

Q: What might be the pros and cons of the various ways in which new recruits learn your culture?

A: An awful lot falls between the cracks and is only learnt when it becomes a problem. People can feel unwelcome, as if they are outside the group. It can take members a long time to feel comfortable enough to speak up – some never reach that point. It favours people who are outgoing and gregarious, who will ask questions and get involved without any encouragement. On the pros side: it requires very little effort on the part of the coop; it is down to the member’s own initiative.

Q: Have you considered other ways you might adopt?

A: New member workshops or training afternoons; having new member mentors or go-to contacts.

Q: Do you use a member agreement? (A document outlining what you can expect of your co-operative and what your co-operative expects from you; Rights and responsibilities of membership). If no, why not?

A: I don’t think so, not beyond our tenancy agreement and P&Ps (which most people haven’t read). Why not? Because it’s more work, I suppose, and because we don’t have much in the way of expectations either way.

Q: Have you seen your co-operative culture change over time? If so, why do you think this is?

A: The culture changes in waves. We’re currently riding one particular wave, with more and more of a certain kind of person moving in, which pushes other kinds of people out. But that’ll change again in the future, I’m sure. We’ve had all kinds of waves over the past 40 years. Why this particular wave now? Perhaps it’s a new generation of graduates who are more aware of environmental and community issues and want to make a difference to people and planet. The housing market is also increasingly expensive, which makes our membership process much more competitive, so we have many more potential members to choose from – but, rather than broadening our membership, our demographic has narrowed because people like to choose people like themselves. So more and more people sharing the same mindset.

Thanks a lot David!

Check out Sanford Housing Co-op
So what do you think? Do you have any thoughts, opinions, experience to share? We’d love to hear your comments or questions. Or if you would like to join in the ‘Conversations’ then answer the questions above, (feel free to add any further thoughts) and send to:
kate [at] cooperantics.coop
we’ll be happy to have a Conversation with you!
Don’t forget, you can find lots of tools, tips and techniques for building and nurturing a strong co-operative culture right here (see links above). Or contact us if you’d like us to run a workshop, or provide consultancy support, advice or guidance on co-operative skills. More information on our services can be found here.

Today’s Conversation with Hamwic Housing Co-op in Southampton, an older and more well-established housing co-op, points out some of the problems that can crop up if a strong co-operative culture is not renewed and nurtured over time.

We talk to Dave Morris, outgoing Secretary of Hamwic:

Hi Dave,

My first question is:

Q: Which is a more powerful influence on members’ behaviour in your co-op – Rules or Policies & Procedures – or culture within the membership?

A: In our co-op a third of the members follow the rules policies and perform their voluntary duties to a reasonable level, given the part time job roles. Another third think they understand the rules but make up their own versions, are disruptive and generally challenge everything and come from a negative stand point although some still manage to contribute their time and efforts. Then a third either don’t care or don’t understand what they have joined. Culture tends to override sense on some decisions – a mob mentality at times

Q: How do new recruits ‘learn’ the prevailing culture of the co-operative?

A: We have tried inductions. It can help. Joining a group can help and working with other members. These only work though if members are willing to get involved. I think tying in training to steps on the ladder in getting a flat or renting a room may help, like if it is a part of the points system you need to get completed and signed off before getting options to apply…this would cover old and new members.

Q: What would you say are the advantages of the way in which new recruits learn your culture?

A: The advantages of new members is by learning our culture they get motivated to take control of their destiny and help the co-op contribute skills and man/woman power.

Q: And the disadvantages?

A: Disadvantages are learning bad habits from the bad element like arguing for the sake of it and petty wars that go on. So they get turned off and leave.

Q: Have you considered other ways you might adopt?

A: Yeah, we have discussed whether the co-op should be run by the Co-ordinating Committee, with housing block reps who relate the others’ needs and then maybe we could cut the General Meetings down by half. But that needs a lot more thought. We’ve also thought of other things like employing our own odd job man/woman to cut down on the raft of smaller jobs and expenses and that could combine grounds maintenance as we are a smallish co-op.

Q: Do you use a membership agreement?  (document outlining what you can expect of your co-operative and what your co-operative expects from you; Rights and responsibilities of membership)

A: Our application form states you will agree to this and that when you join. We have rules, policies and standing orders that everyone gets a copy of. And in the inductions we always mention what is expected.  The tenancy agreement ties in with all these in legal terms as we have had this checked with a solicitor.  As long as the General Meeting agrees we can remove people for the worst breaches of policy, although in practice this doesn’t always work.

Q: What changes have you seen in your co-operative’s culture over time?  Why do you think this is and what do you think the causes have been?

A: The co-op is constantly changing. Sometimes new blood gives it a positive kick up the arse, by members forming new friendships and working groups and exchanging ideas. We have had some great members in recent years. But some older members resent change and want their say which often leads us down a dead end, even when we are trying to point out long term benefits. Some members only want cheap rent or what they can get out of us (repairs or refurbished flats).  I think in our own co-op if we make it through the next ten years we’ll be ok. But trying to keep a lid on reckless behaviour by some members in terms of spending money and fighting with other members who form factions is difficult as no one wants to be the ‘bad guy’ and tell them what to do.  Most members have no idea of business and just see someone telling them what to do. The solution is more education and rotation of members in sub groups. i.e every one switches after twelve months, ‘cos we always change officers every year or more…..convincing the groups to do this maybe another hurdle!

Thanks a lot for telling us like it is Dave!

Check out Hamwic Housing Co-op

So what do you think? Do you have any thoughts, opinions, experience to share? We’d love to hear your comments or questions. Or if you would like to join in the ‘Conversations’ then answer the questions above, add any further ideas you may have and email to us at:
kate [at] cooperantics.coop
and we’ll be happy to have a Conversation with you!

Don’t forget, you can find lots of tools, tips and techniques for building and nurturing a strong co-operative culture right here (see links above). Or contact us if you’d like us to run a workshop, or provide consultancy support, advice or guidance on co-operative skills. More information on our services can be found here.

 

Conversation #3 is with Jane Ferrie of Mary Ann Johnson Housing Co-op, or MAJ for short. Formed in 1999 by a group of individuals from North London, most on welfare benefits or low waged, they have bought and converted a house in North London, as well as managing a house in which some members are tenants. Members are also involved in Haringey Solidarity Group, a non aligned local campaigning group. As part of the housing co-operative they hope to incorporate a meeting space and a few small office/ work spaces, for campaigning groups and others.

Hi Jane,

My first question is:

Q: Which is a more powerful influence on members’ behaviour in your co-op – Rules or Policies & Procedures – or culture within the membership?

A: Definitely the most powerful is a co-operative ‘culture’ within the membership. However, that needs to be combined with playing to everyone’s strengths.

Q: How do new recruits ‘learn’ the prevailing culture of the co-operative?

A: MAJ is a small co-op and we have had very few new members. The few we have had have already been familiar with our co-operative culture from being part of joint events with existing members of the co-op. Once actually in the co-op new members learn a lot from seeing what goes on at meetings. We don’t have a regular newsletter but take it in turns to write the MAJ contribution to the Radical Routes quarterly newsletter Radical Rumours. Writing down what you and other co-op members have been doing over the past three months can help reinforce co-op cohesion and culture.

Q: What would you say are the advantages of the way in which new recruits learn your culture?

A: The advantages are that it is organic and intuitive

Q: And the disadvantages?

A: that it is unstructured and might require rethinking if new members were to join who had not previously had any experience of living or working co-operatively.

Q: Have you considered other ways you might adopt?

A: No, we haven’t, but we are thinking possibly of expanding the co-op so this will be something that we may well need to consider.

Q: Do you use a member agreement? (A document outlining what you can expect of your co-operative and what your co-operative expects from you; Rights and responsibilities of membership)

A: No we don’t at the moment, because we have a set of primary and secondary rules that cover much of what would probably be covered by a membership agreement. However, if there were added benefits to a membership agreement we would consider it.

Q: What changes have you seen in your co-operative’s culture over time?  Why do you think this is and what do you think the causes have been?

A: It changed significantly once we got our first property and again when we took over the management of the other property where most of the rest of our members live. The move from talking and planning to hands on doing brought us focus and tangible results.

Thanks a lot Jane!

Check out Mary Ann Johnson Housing Co-op and follow @MAJHousingCoop

So what do you think? Do you have any thoughts, opinions, experience to share? We’d love to hear your comments or questions. Or if you would like to join in the ‘Conversations’ then answer the questions above, add any further ideas you may have and email to us at:
kate [at] cooperantics.coop
and we’ll be happy to have a Conversation with you!

Don’t forget, you can find lots of tools, tips and techniques for building and nurturing a strong co-operative culture right here (see links above). Or contact us if you’d like us to run a workshop, or provide consultancy support, advice or guidance on co-operative skills. More information on our services can be found here.

23. June 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Uncategorized

Phone Co-op CEO Vivian Woodell said “Good co-op governance means getting culture, people, structure and process right” and other experienced co-operators have talked about the importance of ‘co-op culture’. But what is it? How do you build it and nurture it? We think there is much co-operatives can learn from each other, both in the UK and overseas. We will be posting Co-operantics Conversations with a range of different co-operatives over Co-ops Fortnight, so watch this space!

Conversation #2 is with Amanda Beard of The Phone Co-op

Hello Amanda,

My first question is:

Q:In your view, which is a more powerful influence on members’ (both consumer members and employee members) behaviour – policies, procedures and rules or culture within the membership?

A: Culture within the membership

Q:How do newly recruited employee members ‘learn’ the prevailing culture of the co-operative?

A: By observing colleagues during the working day, members’ behaviour in meetings and during the induction process. We also have regular Values and Principles courses to make sure that all employees understand what we are based upon.  We encourage all staff to attend Annual General Meetings and Half Yearly Meetings so that they can see democracy in action and we also try to involve as many of them as possible in the annual board election for the same reason.

Q:How do new consumer members ‘learn’ the prevailing culture of your co-operative?

A: At the AGM; through regular newsletters and also through the information sent out regarding the annual election.

Q: What might be the pros and cons of the various ways in which new members ‘learn’ the culture in your co-operative?

A: New consumer members don’t have the opportunity to engage easily as we don’t have shops or obvious places to participate other than AGMs and HYMs.

Q: Have you considered other ways you might adopt?

A: We are building a membership zone on our website, intending to add more information on the co-operative movement as well as regular blogs, polls and surveys.

Q: Do you use a member agreement and/or a members’ job description?  (A document outlining what you can expect of your co-operative and what your co-operative expects from you; Rights and responsibilities of membership)

A: No we don’t – sounds a very interesting idea.

Q: Have you seen your co-operative culture change over time?

A: I don’t think it has changed significantly although, as we have employed more people, it has become harder to share the values and principles easily.

Thanks a lot Amanda!

Check out The Phone Co-op and follow @phonecoop

So what do you think? Do you have any thoughts, opinions, experience to share? We’d love to hear your comments or questions. Or if you would like to join in the ‘Conversations’ then answer the questions above, add any further ideas you may have and email to us at:
kate [at] cooperantics.coop
and we’ll be happy to have a Conversation with you!

Don’t forget, you can find lots of tools, tips and techniques for building and nurturing a strong co-operative culture right here (see links above). Or contact us if you’d like us to run a workshop, or provide consultancy support, advice or guidance on co-operative skills. More information on our services can be found here.

Co-ops Fortnight 21st June – 4th July – is the perfect time to come together and promote the vibrancy and strength of our sector. Co-operantics will celebrate Co-ops Fortnight with a series of ‘Co-operantics Conversations‘ where we will ask co-operators how they build and nurture a strong co-operative culture.

As a result of criticism levelled at poor governance at The Co-operative and the Co-operative Bank, there’s been a lot of heat and not a lot of light shone on the topic of co-operative governance. Experienced co-operators have talked about the importance of co-operative culture. But what is it? How do you build it and nurture it? We think there is much that co-operatives can learn from each other, both in the UK and overseas.

Our first Conversation is with Siôn Whellens of Calverts Co-operative: Design & Print

Hi Siôn,
My first question is:
Q: Which is a more powerful influence on members’ behaviour in your co-op – Rules or policies & procedures – or culture within the membership?
A: We don’t have lots of policy codes, but we do have a lot of accepted procedures, developed by consensus decision making over the years. So often, ‘the way we do things’ has its roots in policy decisions and rule-making from a long time ago, before most of the current members can remember or tweaked from time to time.
Q: How do new recruits ‘learn’ the prevailing culture of the co-operative?
A: Watching the way clients, customers and neighbours interact with us; social media and our website; the reputation of the co-op; observing colleagues during the working day, ‘water cooler’ or lunch break gossip, behaviour of members in meetings, ease of participation in meetings and during the induction process.
Q: What would you say are the advantages of the way in which new recruits learn your culture?
A: People can take as long as they need to ‘get’ the culture (which can also be a disadvantage, but mostly it’s an advantage); it’s a mixture of ‘hard’ learning (e.g. understanding financial reports, environmental policy and procedures) and ‘skills’ learning (modes of discourse and interaction). It’s cheap, efficient and humane because it doesn’t rely on hard power or a management cadre, although it does rely on goodwill and the ‘soft power’ of the group.
Q: And the disadvantages?
A: We tend to assume that given enough time, people will align with and find their positive place in the culture, so we don’t ‘hand hold’ that much and we don’t review members’ performance as members, so it can take a long time to resolve problems.
Q: Have you considered other ways you might adopt?
A: More formal training in co-operative knowledge and skills during the probation year (quite likely to implement, if the current worker coop skills training and other events like Worker Weekend continue); a system for formal peer appraisals (always rejected!)
Q: Do you use a member job description? (A document outlining what you can expect of your co-operative and what your co-operative expects from you; Rights and responsibilities of membership)
A: No! It might be difficult to introduce one, unless there was something we could borrow and tweak, because when things are going OK people say ‘why fix it if it ain’t broke’ and when things aren’t going well people have other priorities.
Q: What changes have you seen in your co-operative’s culture over time? Why do you think this is and what do you think the causes have been?
A: Less overtly political as the business entered its golden phase and early members moved on; less ‘office politics’ (i.e. internal caucusing and organising around ‘agendas’), as the average age changed from 25-ish to 45-ish, and also because it led to conflicts which caused a lot of grief and nearly destroyed the co-op. We grew up.

Thanks a lot Siôn!

Check out Calverts Co-op: Design & Print and follow Siôn @Scumboni

So what do you think? Do you have any thoughts, opinions, experience to share? We’d love to hear your comments or questions. Or if you would like to join in the ‘Conversations’ then answer the questions above, add any further ideas you may have and email to us at:
kate [at] cooperantics.coop
and we’ll be happy to have a Conversation with you!

Don’t forget, you can find lots of tools, tips and techniques for building and nurturing a strong co-operative culture right here (see links above). Or contact us if you’d like us to run a workshop, or provide consultancy support, advice or guidance on co-operative skills. More information on our services can be found here.

09. June 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Uncategorized

At Co-operantics we have a few activities coming up for Co-operatives Fortnight.

We are organising some informal co-op networking in Bristol and Southampton, but of more interest to the rest of you, we will be hosting a series of “Co-operantics Conversations“.  We will be talking through some co-operative governance issues with various members of co-ops and publishing their thoughts in a bid to help co-ops learn from each other and spread good practice.  Keep your eyes peeled!

You can find out more about Co-operatives Fortnight on the Co-operatives UK website and using hashtag #coops14 on Twitter.

06. June 2014 · Comments Off · Categories: Uncategorized
How rent is partially made up of profit for property owners

How rent is partially made up of profit for property owners

Here is a simple proposition.  When people pay rent, it is not used to line the pockets of a property owner (e.g. Buy to Let) but used to cover the costs of providing the accommodation, with a little surplus for a rainy day and towards acquiring more properties so the benefit can be shared.  The resulting rent would be cheaper as the “top slice” of profit required for the landlord is taken out of the equation.

What’s more, if the property is owned and democratically controlled by those tenants, they will take care of their homes and will seek ways to manage and maintain the property that save money, because it is in their own mutual interest. We are talking about a housing co-operative.  It’s a “no-brainer” in a country that is suffering from a housing crisis and in which rent is spiraling out of control to satisfy the needs of investors.

However, there is a problem.  In order to buy the property you need to have sufficient money to put down as a deposit.  This is the primary reason why housing co-operatives are not as prevalent as you would expect given they are a “no-brainer”.  The problem of accessing capital to lever in finance to purchase the house has come up again and again with potential housing co-op start ups. So maybe we need to have another look at the financing of housing co-ops.

I have been involved as a professional advisor to housing co-operatives since 1998 and was an active member of a 70-member housing co-operative which is a Registered Provider (holding various officer roles including Treasurer) for 12 years.   In addition to supporting existing housing co-ops to improve governance or operational matters and to acquire properties, I have also worked with a number of capable pre-start groups who have had their intentions and efforts frustrated.

Blue sky thinking

I am challenging some of my own views here.  I’m not necessarily saying that what I suggest in this piece is how I want the world to be, but if we aim to grow the co-operative elements of the housing sector we need to broaden our horizons beyond our current focus and personal desires.  So, beware…blue skies ahead

 

There has been a tradition of those who speak for the UK Housing Co-op “movement” to focus on public sector housing and public funding for housing co-operatives.  They are doing a great job which needs doing, but this is only part of the housing landscape.  To make demands of the public purse to support co-operative housing while all political parties are committed to reducing public spend – winning a bigger slice of the cake while the cake is being reduced in overall size – should not be our only tactic.   Additionally access to public monies also brings with it the regulation of being a Registered Provider which carries an  administrative burden requiring scale and, from my observations, a tendency to move from a radical to a conservative focus.  I used to find myself fighting a battle to retain the members’ interests over the regulators demands – and winning, I might add.

This means that we have a widely accepted construct in the UK that to be a “housing co-operative” worthy of note you have to a) be of a certain size and operate in a certain way, and b) only provide housing for rent for people in need.  So what of those who are not technically in need but want to avail themselves of co-operative housing?  There’s a gap in the market, and the private rented market is set to boom by all accounts.  A case of need, a market, and co-operatives offering member benefit that provides a better offer than the market is fertile ground for co-operative development.

I believe there is room to encourage entrepreneurialism and growth of the co-operative control of housing by being widerin our definition of co-operative housing.  To grow co-operative housing we may have to challenge our own sacred cows.  There is a difference between what we ought to call “Co-operative housing associations” which is the well developed part of the UK sector and “co-operative housing” meaning housing that has some form of co-operative ownership and/or control.

Moving beyond co-operative housing for renters

In the UK there has been a tendency to downplay any role other than the renter-landlord dynamic.  Why is co-ownership ignored?  It isn’t ignored in the worker and enterprise owned co-operative sectors (notably the agricultural sector).  I am a huge fan of common ownership in general and social ownership of housing but we ought to accept exploring some level of co-ownership as an option if we aim to grow the co-operative movement and to use the advantages of mutuality to address housing issues.

Some people are interested in partial (or whole) private ownership of properties within a co-operative environment.  For instance, I have worked with a group who have potential members willing to sell their homes and invest in a co-operative to provide capital for a development in which they will live.  We had to unpick the difference between a mortgage holder who completes their loan and then has a vastly reduced household outgoing over time and the renter who pays rent in perpetuity.

People who have valuable properties may be interested in co-ownership, or may want to invest their equity to enable the creation of housing managed co-operatively in which they can live.  But do they get equity growth or just a reasonable  return on that equity?  And what is reasonable in this context – if the return on equity is not enough to cover the rent?  They have swapped a completed or near completed mortgage for a rental property and locked up their equity.  It throws up challenges.  But we should meet those challenges, not ignore them.

Maybe it is time to blaze a new trail for entry into co-operative housing for people other than renters.  My clients are still absorbing and considering the issues this has thrown up and what the final “offer” will be to the different “types” of member – all of whom will still have equal voting rights in how the co-operative is managed.

Co-housing is relatively small but growing in the UK. Some schemes incorporate private ownership and some Community Land Trusts offer private ownership but co-housing and CLTs are meeting specific needs (shared space and land ownership) that not all private owners will be interested in.

Ageing population

We have an ageing population who are asset rich but may require low level support if they are to stay independent in their homes.  There could be innovative co-operative solutions to meeting the support needs of home owners and the housing needs of others.  One brings equity, the other brings time.  Together they create a mutual solution.

Leaseholders

What of the co-operativisation of leaseholders?  There are many leasholder companies for small blocks of flats that are established as share companies and often run by ex-bankers, stockbrokers or solicitors bringing private sector behaviours of hierarchy.  Co-operative principles could be introduced to these organisations and empower all the leaseholders, while providing the wider social benefits a co-operative brings over those of a private mutual.

“Buy to co-op”

What about “buy to co-op” instead of “buy to let” i.e. instead of establishing housing associations, we establish buy to let entities that just happen to be owned by the people who rent from them (or maybe even allow in investors in a limited capacity, or staff, using a multi-stakeholder model). They could provide a dividend return (profit share)s rather than the model of pre-distribution in the form of lower rents that UK Housing Co-ops offer.

Is access to capital the problem?

The biggest barrier to developing co-operative housing I have come across is access to sufficient capital to acquire a mortgage.  Some co-ops have used loanstock but this is fairly limited.  Withdrawable share capital probably isn’t the right approach if you are fully mutual and only want tenants or occupiers controlling the housing, so should we be considering a different approach that enables outside investors to support the needs of tenants without the tenants giving up control over management – a hybrid of the Community Land Trust model and the Housing Co-operative model.  Radical Routes have been working to establish a secondary co-op that will own some of the equity in new-start co-ops: Co-operative Principles put into action to grow the movement.  Yet the Radical Routes members are a tiny percentage of co-operative housing in the UK. Another innovation could be mutual guarantee schemes (or co-ops mortgaging their existing owned assets to release development capital for other co-ops) which enable new co-ops to establish themselves in the early days when it is not profitability but access to capital that dictates the success, failure or growth rate of a housing co-operative.  Rather than ask the government and policy makers to act, I suggest our own movement does something. (Remember those Co-operative Values of self-help and solidarity?)

One innovation that I am certain we need to promote as a movement is inward investment from the co-operative movement into co-operative housing.   In particular, we could target pension funds held by large co-operative employers. There must be some mechanism that can be created – even in the current legal framework – which would allow a pension fund to invest in housing developments that just so happen to be co-operatives.  Maybe a “co-operative housing fund” that invests bonds or similar – I know nothing about pensions!  And if they are start-ups with higher risk then the returns might be higher in the same way the traditional stock holders approach investments in high risk companies.

This would enable models other than the Registered Provider, which allows for a more diverse sector (lots of small co-ops as well as large ones). Some people I have met have been put off housing co-ops by their experiences in poorly run larger scale co-ops which devalue the individual operating on a tyranny by of the minority basis (like the state socialist approach of the needs of the individual being ignored or undermined for the “greater good”…now intone after me “The greater good”). Yes, part of the answer is to improve larger co-ops, but perhaps we need to question scale and encourage co-ops of all sizes.

Co-operative developers

If we are talking about co-operative involvement in the housing sector (which is what the pre-amble covered), why has the development side been left untouched?  Supply is part of the housing economy.  Mainstream developers have one goal:shareholder return.  What about co-operative developers – either owned by groups of housing co-ops, or as multi-stakeholder co-ops incorporating workers, customer housing co-ops (and maybe even investors) rather than operating purely for profit putting some of their profits into the community by funding CLTs or common ownership housing co-operatives.

Time to innovate?

Should we be innovating to address these capital issues (including more member investment) and move into less traditional areas – growing what for the UK would be a relatively new type of co-op housing? I.e. One that moves beyond the social housing sector and into the private sector.

Should our strategic innovation be to move away reliance on state intervention and toward self-responsibility, self-reliance as a movement and promoting Co-operative Principles 6 and 7 in investment away from government back to member users and other investors from the movement?  I am not saying ignore state controlled grant funding, but let’s not be prisoners of it!

More co-operation!

This blog by Co-operantics member Nathan Brown first appeared on his “Social Enterprise? Help!” blog.  Co-operantics has worked with a number of UK Housing Co-ops and continues to provide governance, strategic and business planning support to housing co-operatives, worker co-operatives and community co-operatives.