Strategic planning in worker co-operatives

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

A new service from Co-operantics: Appraisals and Personal Reviews

Co-operantics offers a unique new service in support of co-operative performance assessment

As your co-op develops there will be a growing need for skills assessment and analysis of where skills gaps might exist across the whole business. You may also want to think about quality controls, standards, targets or best practice, to ensure that all employee members are offering the best customer service, meeting agreed targets and complying with best practice while the co-op delivers the member benefits, terms and conditions that your members want. To achieve this, the co-op will require some kind of assessment, to ensure these standards are being met.

If these assessments are not carried out, members will be unaware whether or not they are meeting performance standards, there can be role confusion – duplication or gaps, which can cause tensions or conflict. If the assessments are carried out inadequately or if they are seen as a mere tick box exercise, they can cause resentment and frustration or – even worse – a feeling that you are being ‘got at’ or punished for some misdemeanour. If personal development and work related aspirations are not met, you risk losing valuable members from your co-op.

Achievement of goals and compliance with standards can be assessed using an Appraisal – which identifies the tasks, skills and knowledge involved within a job description and assesses performance. A more holistic, person-centred approach is the Personal Review, which focuses on personal development and members’ strengths and weaknesses so that strengths can be built on and training needs assessed. The training needs assessment could then be the basis for a Personal Development Plan – an excellent and proactive approach to career development, building up members’ skills and knowledge as part of continuing professional development for the benefit of members and the co-operative itself.

There are a number of ways in which your co-operative can address performance assessment, and Co-operantics can help you choose the right one, details below.

Designing an appraisals or review system Your Co-operantics consultant works with nominated member(s) of your co-op to review the processes you currently use and proposes improvements. This will usually take the form of a combination of workshops and consultancy.   We focus on how a new system will mesh with and reflect the ethos and strategy of the co-op, supporting workers and members to reach their full potential and the co-op to meet its members’ needs.
Member personal review  Individual members identify key elements and skills involved in their job description, then carry out a preliminary reflective review. The Co-operantics consultant then comes in and carries out a second review, in which we aim to challenge the individual, and help them to clarify their answers. The final step is to work together to identify personal improvements, training requirements and personal targets for creating a personal development plan.
Co-op Member competency appraisal Your Co-operantics consultant will help the co-operative identify and separate out ‘co-op member competencies’ from ‘job competencies’, drawing up a standard list of co-op member competencies that every member must fulfil. Members and probationary members are assessed either by the consultant or HR team or sub-committee, and any lack of competencies will form the basis of training or development plans.
Job competency appraisal Your Co-operantics consultant will help the co-operative identify and separate out ‘job competencies’ from ‘co-op member competencies’, drawing up a list of job competencies attached to every job description. Members and probationary members are assessed either by the consultant or HR team or sub-committee, and any lack of competencies will form the basis of training or development plans.
Buddy system  Each member has a ‘Buddy’ to support them – a bit like a personal HR worker. Co-operantics will mentor the Buddies – providing them with training and support. Like the personal review above, the member carries out a self-assessment review and discusses it with their Buddy. The Buddy then presents it and their recommendations to the committee, but without the member being present. The Buddy monitors progress on Action points agreed by the co-op, so the co-op decides improvement actions, rather than the member.
KPIs/personal targets  Co-operantics will run a training seminar on KPIs – what they are and how to use them for performance management. Worker-members are allocated Key Performance Indicators relating to their job role. Regular review meetings are held to assess performance against KPIs and discuss related issues.

Co-operantics can help you to address performance assessment, working to support your HR team or sub-committee or taking on delivery of the entire task. We can advise on the most appropriate approach depending on the type and culture of your co-op, the number of members and the sector you are working in.

Please get in touch with us if any of the above options sounds right for your co-operative. Alternatively, we are happy to discuss other ways in which we could support your performance assessments.

kate@cooperantics.coop

nathan@cooperantics.coop

Induction of new co-operative members

The 5th Co-operative Principle, “Education, Training & Information”, serves as a useful reminder that one of the keys to success for a co-operative lies in investing in your members.  As well as job-specific and co-op specific training it’s important to help new co-op members understand that all co-ops share the same history, values and principles and philosophy as part of an international movement.

Our co-operative induction session picks apart the fundamentals of what it means to be a co-operative and enables new members to gain an understanding of how co-operative principles apply to their co-operative and their role within the co-op.

Co-operantics induction training includes:

  • What is different about a co-operative business? Different types of co-op
  • The history of the UK co-operative movement
  • Co-operatives as an international movement
  • Review of some essential co-operative skills: communication skills, participating in meetings, decision making
  • Rights and responsibilities of membership; member job descriptions and member agreements

We can offer a bespoke session for your new members; alternatively, if there is sufficient local demand we will run a regional session together with new members of other local co-operatives.  Contact us for more information or to discuss your needs.

Here are some testimonials from a recent Induction training with newer members of Essential Trading:

  • Really informative & good handouts. Be good to see others have similar training
  • Interesting
  • Very informative!
  • Very happy with the workshop especially the history of co-ops covered

Happy Easter!

From Co-operantics. We’re taking a break for a few days. Please feel free to browse our site – you will find lots of useful information, tips, techniques and games. Or leave us a message: kate or nathan [at] cooperantics.coop and we’ll get back to you after Monday 13th April.

Happy New Year – & Congratulations to The New Leaf Co-op!

Lucky winners of our ‘Business Tools for Worker Co-operatives’ survey prize

The New Leaf Co-op, Edinburgh have won three hours’ worth of mentoring support worth £250!

The survey produced some interesting results, somewhat confirming our beliefs about the challenges of delivering training to busy worker co-op members.

We will be developing an innovative initiative for delivering support on worker co-op management, and introducing ‘co-op friendly’ management tools in 2015.

Watch this space!

Happy Holidays From the Co-operanticators!

It’s been a great year, with some hopeful & positive initiatives.  Here are some of our highlights:

See you at CBC’s Ways Forward III, Manchester in January &/or at Co-op Future’s Can Do Co-ops, Church Stretton in February

Thanks for all the support, work & fun we have had with our many friends, colleagues and collaborators & here’s to a successful, peaceful and co-operative 2015!

Wishing you a co-operative festive season identity.coop
Wishing you a co-operative festive season identity.coop

Counting the cost of workplace conflict

Conflict in itself in a co-operative is not to be feared and cannot be avoided – indeed it is evidence of a wide range of skill and knowledge, of different cultures and different levels of education and life experience. It can help build that all-important co-operative ‘culture’, it can develop good workplace relationships and it can trigger creativity and inspiration.

When it is unacknowledged, unresolved or destructive however it can imply significant costs to the co-operative – both human and organisational.

For individual members:

It can mean self-doubt and insecurity, high levels of stress, absenteeism, sickness and even eventually loss of members

For the co-operative:

It will mean time wasted in grievance procedures & dealing with the outcomes; poor team-working, loss of morale, schisms & cliques all resulting in lower productivity; it will mean high member/employee turnover, with additional recruitment and training costs; and possibly even the costs of attending an employment tribunal.

See ‘Coping with conflict’ for information on our services

Getting People to the Cooperative Breakfast Table

Our friend Brian Van Slyke, designer of Co-opoly has written an interesting response to our article on co-operative culture, focusing on co-operative culture and start-ups. We like it so much it is posted in its entirety here:

Getting People to the Cooperative Breakfast Table: Forging A Co-op Culture During the Start-Up Phase

The recent series on Cooperantics.coop about creating a cooperative culture was absolutely fascinating and an important contribution to the co-op movement. One particular quote stuck out to me, from a member of the Calverts Co-op:

Co-operative culture eats co-operative governance for breakfast

This is a critical statement that rings extremely true in my experience. At the same time, many people’s lives and environments have shaped them in a way that has not prepared them for the co-op experience in the slightest. The idea of a co-op culture is the anti-thesis of how they are used to working. In fact, as much as they might need to learn about co-ops and co-op culture, there’s probably a hefty amount of unlearning that needs to be done as well.

Recently, I was at a co-op workshop in Chicago with a range of folks from different cooperative backgrounds – people who were learning about the subject for the first time, co-op developers, and a few who’d been in the field for a long time. One attendee was part of a large, newly forming catering co-op going through some of the start-up phase pangs. This co-op is in the midst of getting off the ground and many of their members work other jobs. Most of these members are people who’ve never been in a co-op before, who have mostly worked low-wage jobs with a boss that simply tells them what to do. This, the co-op rep told us, was causing problems. He, as the person with the original idea for the catering co-op, had been made into the de facto point man–and sometimes he even felt like a boss. This wasn’t what he wanted, but he wasn’t sure how to change things. People weren’t showing up for member meetings. People would be assigned tasks that they would never follow up on. He’d ask people what they should do about certain issues, and only get blank stares in response. They’d just ask him to take on all the responsibilities and be the face of the business. He told the rest of the workshop attendees that this wasn’t feeling much like a co-op, and he wanted to know what he could do to change things.

This all brings up an intriguing question. If co-op culture eats co-op governance for breakfast, how do we get people to the breakfast table in the first place? (If I dare stretch the analogy that far…) Some people have no history, no exposure, no understanding of what co-ops and co-op culture is in the first place. So how do we even get them to commit to the idea? Well, the co-op cater’s question sparked a long and lengthy dialogue in the workshop. It involved people ranging from those were starting their own co-ops to folks who had been in the co-op movement for quite a time. And below were some of the key take-aways from that conversation.

Making Sure You Have The Right People

One of the primary concerns this co-op rep had was: do I have the right people? Is it better to bring in people who are excited about the co-op mission, or who need the co-op the most?

There was a long and lengthy conversation over this point. But one thing that everyone agreed on was that you can’t start a co-op with people who don’t want to start it. The start-up stage is one of the most vulnerable times for any cooperatives. If you don’t have people who aren’t committed, who aren’t going to do everything in their power to make it work… then you really have to take a good, long look at whether your co-op dream has the chance of becoming a reality.

One thing that often happens during situations like this is a natural self-selection process–those who are not fully committed to the struggles of forming a co-op will fall off the bandwagon. At some point, however, you do have to decide on a key question: who is going to work with me, through thick and thin, to make this thing happen? And you need to commit to those individuals. Then, down the road, when you’re more financially and institutionally stable, you can be intentional about building room for those people who need more encouragement to join in on the cooperative culture and process.

Buy-In: Not Just Purchasing a Share

Another key point that was brought up during our discussion was that a buy-in isn’t just about purchasing a share in the co-op. It’s also about showing people that their opinions matter and will have a real, lasting impact in the workplace. That’s something most people are not used to, and simply don’t know how to react when they’re presented with the opportunity for first time.

One co-op developer shared his experience of working with a group where there was one member who never spoke – no matter what. One day, when the co-op was facing a serious issue, the developer went around the room and asked everyone specifically to share their thoughts about how the co-op should take on the situation. That person who never said a word? He gave the most in-depth and best idea of anyone, and the co-op eventually put his suggestion into practice. When the developer asked this silent member why he had never spoken up before, the member said it was because no one had ever asked him, directly, what he thought. He wasn’t used to being able to speak up and wasn’t comfortable with just jumping into a conversation.

Since then, this once silent member has become one of the co-op’s most vocal. The workshop attendees reflected that this was likely because not only was he asked for his thoughts, but he also saw them put into action. That was his buy-in to the cooperative culture.

Member Meetings: Should they be paid time?

Another thought that came up was something that’s been recently debated within the worker co-op movement: should member meetings be paid time?

Paying for members’ meeting times is certainly more difficult for start-up co-ops and those who don’t have much financial reserves. However, if people aren’t committing to attending meetings, then this is something that could be used to push them over the edge to join. In addition, most worker co-ops do consider member meetings to be labor. As such, that time should be paid for, if possible. For those who are unused to the idea of a co-op culture, and of being expected to participate in decision making and planning, this could be the needed catalyst to get them to the table.

Build Member Meetings into Existing Work Times

Related to the above was the issue of finding a time for everyone to get together. The co-op rep who was sharing his concerns stated that others were often making excuses about why they couldn’t attend meetings. Family issues, weekend mornings aren’t good for them, weekend afternoons aren’t good for them, weekend evenings aren’t good for them, after work hours aren’t good for them, transportation time and costs, and so on and so forth.

One suggestion that was offered was the idea of finding time during the busy workday to, no matter what, have the member meetings – while everyone is already there. Of course, this can be difficult for those who are already so jammed with work and crunched for time. However, it might be necessary if that’s the only opportunity where everyone can be together. In addition, this approach would help build the understanding that meetings are an expected part of the co-op’s work. They’re not separate or optional. They’re part of being in the business.

Making Communal Expectations, Sticking to Them

The final big suggestion was to make and agree to communal expectations, and to have everyone sign off on them. These expectations could even be posted on the co-op’s walls, so that everyone would be reminded of them on a regular basis. In this way, no one could say, “I didn’t agree to that!” Because they literally have. In addition, this approach builds a common understanding of what is expected from each other – instead of assuming people will work off of unspoken agreements. Finally, the co-op would have to ensure that people are sticking to their agreements and expectations. If people have agreed to attend all meetings, save for emergencies, illness, etc., but they regular miss them – there should be a process for grievance and review. If someone misses three or four meetings in a year without appropriate excuses, maybe they should be asked if the co-op model is for them. Whatever it is, creating clear expectations, having everyone agree to them, and having them upheld is critical to creating a vibrant cooperative culture.

Obviously, not all of these ideas will work for all groups (many of them are worker co-op specific) and there are many other ideas to share. The above is more of a synthesis of a brainstorm that happened in Chicago. Still, these are good ideas that should be evaluated for each start up co-op. Building a co-op culture is critical for building a successful, thriving, democratic organization. At the same time, we need to find ways to bring many people to the table to begin with.

Brian Van Slyke is the founder of The Toolbox for Education and Social Action, a worker cooperative that creates and distributes educational resources for social and economic change, such as Co-opoly: The Game of Cooperatives

Generating and nurturing a strong co-operative culture – Top Tips

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.

You can read the interviews by following these links (they open in a new window):

Co-operantics Conversations #7

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.