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

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

Got the picture?

A picture is worth a thousand words, or so the saying goes. Pictures & diagrams can help us to simplify complex relationships. Imagine, for instance, if you were trying to describe all the lines of communication in your co-op. If you try it in words it might run to 30 pages, but you could probably sum most of it up in one (albeit complex) diagram.

coopukbk5unicycle1b
How the different parts of your co-op might relate to one another?

That’s not the only reason you might find diagrams useful:

  • Some people understand images better than words
  • Some people don’t have the time or attention span to commit to a long written document
  • It is easy to “zoom out” and get an overview, to spot fatal flaws in a process or proposal

When trying to develop a new strategy for our co-op (e.g. new marketing strategy, or new way of organising the workload) one of the best tools I have found is to try and assemble the ideas in a diagram or picture – even if it is just words connected with arrows.

Have you ever spent a day working hard to develop a strategy or process, the group creates a diagram and then someone is given the soulless job of spending half a day turning those pictures into 4 or 5 pages of words. Somehow, the meaning gets lost in translation. Not enough people read the document because it’s just too much, too dense or becomes more complicated once it is put into words. Those that do retreat to solitude so they can focus enough to understand it. Readers have to construct a mental diagram to make sense of it. There is scope for people to not quite “get” the plan or get it in the wrong way. When the diagram is presented, everyone looks at it together, they challenge it and describe what they like or dislike, they grab the pen and make corrections, suggest improvements, add the missing parts or spot the “fail”.

Here are some sweeping observations I’ve made watching groups of people presented with diagrams or strategy documents:

  • Diagrams tend to provoke questions, challenges, declarations of not understanding (which is a good thing), identification of faults and problem solving suggestions. They also provoke physical interaction – people crowd together around the image.  Emotional responses such as enthusiasm or rejection are declared.
  • Written papers prompt semantics (arguing about the meaning of words), arguments about grammar, boredom, yawning and switching off. Discussion papers provoke a retreat into solitude.  It is difficult to gauge responses as emotions are guarded.

I’m not saying there isn’t a need for detailed procedures or guidance to accompany the overview – that is the next level of detail – but if developing understanding is the first goal, why do we turn pictures into words?

Diagram
Example: An overview of the strategy for developing new services for members in a co-op, and recruiting other service users as members. How many words would this take to desribe?

Among the services that Co-operantics offers are:

  • Faciliation of strategic reviews/away days
  • Reviews and development of your governance and management
  • See an overview of typical services here

If you are looking for those services please get in touch

 

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.

 

Co-operantics Conversations #5 Sanford Housing Co-op

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.

Co-operantics Conversations #4 Hamwic Housing Co-operative

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-operantics Conversations #3 Mary Ann Johnson Housing Co-op

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.

It’s Co-ops Fortnight!

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.

Co-op member job description

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!