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 #6 Footprint Workers Co-operative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Q:               Have you considered other ways you might adopt?

 A:                Can’t think that we have!

 Q:               Do you use a member job description?

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

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

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

 Thanks a lot Cath!

 Check out Footprint Workers Co-op

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

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

 

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.