29. September 2015 · Comments Off on A new service from Co-operantics: Appraisals and Personal Reviews · Categories: Communication skills, Coping with conflict, Meetings and decision making, Team Working

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

18. November 2014 · Comments Off on Counting the cost of workplace conflict · Categories: Coping with 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

16. July 2014 · Comments Off on Co-operantics Conversations #7 · Categories: About Co-operatives, Communication skills, Coping with conflict, Meetings and decision making, Team Working

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.

 

03. July 2014 · Comments Off on Co-operantics Conversations #4 Hamwic Housing Co-operative · Categories: About Co-operatives, Coping with conflict, Meetings and decision making

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.

 

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.

At the recent Worker Co-op Weekend (an excellent get together of 20+ worker co-ops & about 30 people, held in West Sussex last weekend) there was one topic which came up again and again – the Co-operative Member Job Description – or the ‘Job of Membership’ as it is called at Delta-T Devices, a worker co-op specialising in instruments for environmental science.

So what is it, and why do we need another job description on top of the one that describes your work tasks and responsibilities?

The member job description tells you what you need to do to be a ‘good co-op member’. It describes the behaviours and skills required for you to participate effectively in the co-operative, and it reminds you that as a co-op member, you have responsibilities as well as rights. Responsibilities to be prepared for meetings – to read papers in advance, have an opinion and turn up on time. A responsibility to be a good communicator – and if your communication skills are not up to scratch, a willingness to attend training.

Suma Wholefoods, the UK’s largest independent wholefood wholesaler/distributor first developed the member job description. They use it in induction – potential members are recruited on short term contracts and their first job is to ‘become a member’. It’s only after successfully demonstrating that they understand what is required of Suma members that they are accepted into full membership. Only those people who are able to meet those requirements are accepted.

At Unicorn Co-operative  Grocery, the member job description is used in recruitment as well as induction, peer appraisal and training. Job applicants are sent a copy of the member job description so they are aware from the beginning what it means to be a member of Unicorn.

So the member job description can help you to get the right people in the first place, support effective induction into the co-operative, set standards of behaviour, provide a framework for peer appraisal and provide guidance for training.

We will be addressing what might be useful to include in a member job description at the co-operative skills seminar: ‘Being a good co-op member’ at Hamilton House in Bristol on Tuesday 3rd June. Book here!

Happy New Year from us at Co-operantics – we hope 2014 brings us all peace, happiness and co-operation.

Here at Co-operantics Towers we are very excited about a new series of seminars we are working on with Co-operatives UK, Seeds for Change, Rhizome and Dynamix – focusing on Co-operative Skills. We expect to be launching the seminars in Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol later in the Spring – watch this space for further information!

In the meantime, maybe you’d like to have a go at our Co-operative Skills Audit, which will provide you with a yardstick to assess communications, meetings and decision-making, as well as how effectively you deal with conflict and how well you work as a team.

Enjoy!

 

When I’m web surfing – looking for interesting insights and new approaches to dealing with conflict, I often come across articles or workshops claiming to tell you ‘How to deal with Difficult People’ – and I’ve always had a bit of a worry in my mind about how useful such approaches are – I’m not convinced that to pin the blame for conflict in the workplace on one ‘Difficult Person’ will solve the problem.

A few years ago, I worked with a now large and successful co-op, who asked me to come in and facilitate what they expected to be a ‘difficult meeting’. Two founder members who had conflicting views about the way the co-op was being run were expected to come head to head. The issue was being identified as a personality conflict – i.e. one member was being ‘difficult’. In fact it didn’t come to that – the members were too thoughtful to permit a head to head situation developing. What it threw up was that the difference between the two members was a typical challenge for any co-op growing up from three or four members to ten or twelve – one member wanted things to continue in a laid back ‘everyone decides everything’ style, whilst the other member saw the need for structure and a division of labour.

After much discussion the co-op agreed to adopt a more structured approach, recognising that especially regards HR (in co-op speak Human Relations) the personnel team needed the authority to implement policies agreed by all the members, and that the General Meeting was not the place to deal with issues such as members consistently arriving late. The co-op subsequently asked me to facilitate a strategy meeting called to look at the whole structure of the business, developing an organisational structure based on teams and team representatives, which as far as I know has served them well since.

We have also worked with co-ops in situations where a co-operative board member – again characterised as ‘difficult’ – had exploded with frustration in public, much to the board’s embarrassment and dismay. On investigation however, this ‘difficult’ behaviour seemed to be the result of a whole cat’s cradle of behavioural and governance issues.

In similar situations, we would recommend improving practice in areas such as:

 1. Communicationsears have walls

2. Meetings skills

  • An important role of the chair is to summarise debate as it goes along and especially to summarise any decisions taken in clear language so the minute taker can write it down
  • Minutes should be a record of decisions taken, not a blow by blow account of the meeting
  • There should be an agreed approach for taking decisions, consensus is best for important long term strategic decisions which will impact on lots of people or involve large sums of money, for less critical decisions it’s ok to vote (unless your co-op has 6 or fewer members, when voting is not recommended)

3. Dealing with conflict

You need a tried and tested recipe for dealing with the inevitable tensions as they arise. There’s also a comprehensive and helpful leaflet published by ACAS

If your co-op is facing such difficultiesyou need to make sure you have a clear vision of what the co-op is for – what does it deliver to its members, agreed by members – without that good communication can be just an efficient way to disagree. The lack of such an agreed ‘vision’ could be the root cause of the problemsTwo people might be pulling in different directions, but they might be in a minority, with the majority wanting a third option and disengaging, which could lead to the co-op crumbling away. 

All of which leads me to think that there’s no such thing as a ‘Difficult Person’ – although of course we can all exhibit Difficult Behaviour! Instead, developing a co-op ‘vision’, thinking about how we communicate, how we take decisions in meetings, and how we deal with the inevitable tensions when they arise – in other words, brushing up our co-operative skills – will make it less likely that such behaviour will occur and will help minimise its impact when it does. It will make us better co-operators and make our co-operatives better places to work.

27. September 2012 · Comments Off on The Sweet Shop Co-op · Categories: About Co-operatives, Coping with conflict

a fascinating example from childhood by Cooperantics member Nathan Brown:

Co-operation is a human instinct, or “how a bunch of children set up a consumer co-op”

Through the filter of hindsight, childhood in the 1970s seemed to involve the sun always shining and the school holidays lasting forever.  We lived on a small estate of about 12 streets which was full of kids haring around on bikes or skateboards, and it also had a parade of shops.  This is the story of how a few of those kids set up an enterprising little buying group on the street we lived on.

 Being the last street before the wilderness that had once been farmland, our street was not quite the “fleabag” but being on the outskirts of the estate made us something of outsiders and it would be a lie to pretend there wasn’t an element of tribalism over which part of the estate you came from.  This led to a form of solidarity – regardless of age or gender, we would generally play together because we lived on the same street. We all had pocket money in varying amounts and to the chagrin of our parents we all liked sweets.  Whilst the local shop sold various sweets in an array of huge jars the minimum purchase was a quarter of a pound.  You couldn’t buy just one or two of a particular sweet.  They did have some “penny sweets” that could be bought individually but as nice as Mojos, Black Jacks, Fruit Salad and Flying Saucers were they didn’t offer the value that buying “proper sweets” by the quarter did.

flying saucers sweets

So, without prompting from any adults we developed a “brand new idea”.  Well, it was new to us!  We would pool our resources and buy a range of sweets which we could all share.  It’s quite possible that the inspiration came from a colouring book telling the story of the Rochdale Pioneers that my younger sister had been given by the Co-op at some point.  We all contributed money and sent a delegation (a girl my age and me as we were the oldest and therefore allowed by our parents to walk to the shops) armed with a list.

When we returned, we set up the “shop”.  Up went a garage door and out came a paste table.  Bowls were “borrowed” from kitchens with or without parents’ knowledge.  And then we set out our stock.  Each member of the group counted out a variety of sweets into a bowl and we set about working out a price.  For most, our pricing strategy (we didn’t call it that!) we divided the cost of the bag by the number of sweets in it and rounded up to the nearest half penny.

sherbet lemons sweets

First we discussed if we should split the sweets equally, but then after some discussion we realised that this form of “socialism” wasn’t totally fair.  Everyone had credit based on what they had contributed and this was written down.  As we consumed sweets our credit was reduced accordingly.  Once everyone had received sweets to the value of the money they had contributed there were some left over!  We had magically created more sweets.  We grouped together and discussed what to do.  Our final decision was to divide these up equally, after all we had all “worked” all day long buying and selling to ourselves.  The “shop” was a resounding success but only lasted a day.  We resolved to repeat the process as soon as anyone had any pocket money to go back to the sweet shop.  More than just a means to access a wider range of confectionery it had been fun!  It kept us busy all day and we enjoyed pitching in and working together for mutual gain.  The social aspect was as important as the transactions that took place.  While we didn’t have any “stock” we set about improving our retail area, devising systems for how people should be served and generally planning.

What we didn’t recognise was that while we had enough money to buy in the stock (capital) there wasn’t any extra to spend as income – which would be a barrier to growth.  And if we retained money to spend as income we wouldn’t have the capital.  Our solution was simple – a loan from the bank of mum and dad.  We would each ask for 2 weeks pocket money and explain why.  1 week for “investing” and 1 week for spending.  And if it worked out as it had the previous week, we would still have money to spend for week 2.  Our backers (parents) agreed.  The cost to us was no pocket money the following week.  A risk we were all prepared to take.

Other kids liked the idea and became “customers”.  We gave them the option of contributing to the pot but some wanted sweets in return for cash right there and then.  We didn’t mind that they hadn’t contributed in the first place as the money they spent still enabled us to buy in more stocks.  We had liquidity!  Two or three times a day there would be a bike run to buy in fresh supplies.  The choice of what to buy was based on what we had left (stock), what sold well (demand) and what we wanted (member need).  And if there were kids who didn’t have enough pocket money we would hold a meeting and decide whether or not to give away freebies.  More often than not they “earnt” some sweets by working a shift on the shop front.

With our success came the capitalist attempt to take over.  There was one family in our street who had money.  They had a new car, the son of the family boasted about his pocket money and he always had the latest toys.  They lived next door to where our “shop” was set up in the garage.  The dad – who smoked cigars, as all good capitalists do, just to make sure we can recognise them – went to the cash and carry and bought whole jars of sweets.  This competing venture had access to capital of a scale that we could only dream of.  Up went their garage door.   Out came their paste table.  And they set out to compete with us.  They failed.  Yes, they sold some sweets, but we sold more than they did.  Quite simply, kids enjoyed hanging round in a shared space.  They liked the opportunity to play “shop keeper” and we had a core of customers who had a shared interest in making our venture a success.

The “shop” came to an end when it was subject to an attempted coup.  The person whose garage it was decided they should be “in charge” and make the decisions as it was their garage.  We didn’t like the thought of subjecting ourselves to a dictator – we were democratic and thrived on equality.  First we tried to convince parents to let us use a different garage – no go, as everyone else’s was full of junk, dangerous chemicals or being used to fix a car. So, rather than work through the issues and resist this internal threat, we resorted to childish behaviour (we were children y’know): we wound the little enterprise up.  All the remaining “stock” was distributed according to how much people still had credited to what was effectively their account.  And what was left was divided up among everyone who had been buying.

A nice little tale and on reading it you may recognise most of the Co-operative Principles in action, but what does it prove?  I like to think it shows that co-operating is more of a natural instinct than competing.  A group of children, some of whom were as young as five, developed a way of working together pretty much in the spirit of the Co-operative Principles.  Transfer this “childs play” example to a real business and the undoing of our sweetshop co-op also shows that maintaining the integrity of the co-op requires more than agreed ways of operating, it requires skills in how to work together to overcome problems. Co-operative skills!

What we mean by co-operative skills is the skill-set you need to be able to co-operate effectively – i.e. work with others in a collective, non-hierarchical, democratically managed organisational structure.

Co-operative skills include:

  1. Communication skills (understanding the essential elements of communication, i.e. sending and receiving messages, and minimising ‘noise’)
  2. Meetings and decision-making skills
  3. Conflict management
  4. Understanding how to avoid potential conflict caused by poor governance or poorly planned growth.

It has been suggested that Emotional Intelligence is a necessary basis for the development of co-operative skills, and if we assume that what we mean by that is self-knowledge and self-awareness, reflection, empathy and social awareness, then common sense would suggest such attributes are indeed essential. Here’s a brief summary of current understanding of emotional intelligence, a look at some of the skills and how we can improve our own emotional intelligence.

Whether or not it’s possible to identify and measure emotional intelligence, some of the basic requirements for co-operative working – such as good communication skills and the ability to behave assertively (instead of being passive, aggressive or manipulative) require self-knowledge, social awareness and empathy.

It’s my belief that such skills are not innate, and can be learned – indeed if children were taught co-operative skills in the classroom they would be better equipped to help build the better world we all want to see.

The elements above are all described and explained in the various topic areas of the website – with games, exercises, and links to other websites and sources of information.