Better or worse than the rest? How are coops managing on management?

I mentioned last week that The Guardian is currently running a series of six pieces from me on the theme Can coops compete?  The second in the series considers management issues and was published today (here).

Are coops condemned to see the best and brightest management staff heading off to, say, Sainsburys or Tesco?  Or – in principle at least – can coops, because of their ethical values, attract more committed employees?

And what about the way coops train their staff?  Should cooperative business education be different from conventional business education?


Co-op Group launches “Have Your Say” survey

The Co-operative Group’s Have Your Say survey has now gone live on-line.

It asks a lot of the patience of its members (the survey says that it should ‘only’ take twenty minutes to complete, and this is probably about right), and it annoyingly does not tell you how far through the survey you have progressed:  I suspect a lot of people will give up half way through.

As a service to those who may be interested in seeing in advance what they will be asked, I have put up a ‘bootleg’ copy of the main questions here:

The survey has already attracted controversy (for example, in today’s Guardian) over the implicit steer towards rejection of the current funding given to the Co-operative Party. (I may return to this issue, and to some of the other areas of the survey, in a future blog.)  It also strikes me as a little cavalier of the Co-operative Group to call itself just ‘The Co-operative’ in the survey, as if the national brand was entirely its own affair.

In the meantime, let’s have a go at one of the early questions, What is the first word that would come to mind if you were asked to describe The Co-operative?  Democracy?  Quality? Ethics? Fairtrade?  Or maybe:  A venerable British institution rooted in working-class self-help which these days doesn’t always deliver value to its members and which needs to rediscover its principles and values?   Ah,  that’s more than a single word.

Coops: can they compete with big business?

I’ll be contributing a series of articles for the Guardian over coming weeks around the theme ‘can cooperatives compete?’.  The first of the series has just appeared on their website (here).

I deliberately pose a couple of provocative questions at the start of the first piece: “If cooperatives are such a good idea, why isn’t the world full of cooperatively run businesses? Why are the commanding heights of the global economy predominantly in the hands of investor-owned companies – and not run by coops operating for the benefit of their members?”

Are there structural reasons why coops can’t hack it? Are there perhaps legal, or financial, or organisational reasons which may be holding coops back?  Or is it (as you’ll see Chuck Gould of the ICA is suggesting) that coops are actually playing a different game from plcs – and that direct comparison is therefore both invidious and irrelevant?

You’ll have to wait for the remaining five pieces in the series to appear (they’ll be put up by the Guardian on a weekly basis).  But you’re welcome to respond straightaway, either here or on the Guardian’s website.

Promoting workers’ coops in NYC

News from the US, where coop supporters in New York City met last week to campaign for more support to be given to the city’s embryonic workers’ cooperative sector. Hopefully, the time is right:  the mayoral election last November saw a Democrat Bill de Blasio take the helm, the first Democrat in charge since 1993.

New York currently has only 23 workers’ coops, although they include the very long established home care coop Cooperative Home Care Associates (CHCA) which has over two thousand members. There’s also the successful women’s coop Si Se Puede! which undertakes domestic cleaning contracts and which has helped to raise the wages earned by its members in a notoriously low paid sector.

“There is widespread recognition that one key area where the city must act is to create jobs,” says a new report issued in conjunction with the conference. “Too few jobs have been created in recent years and too many are at poverty level wages. It is critical that the city support the creation of jobs that combat poverty and empower workers to build businesses rooted in the local communities. Considering that the largest job creator in New York City are small businesses (of which there are nearly 200,000), there is no better time than now to push for the creation of worker cooperatives.”

You’ll find the report here.

More on quorums

An interesting response has just come through from Dave Boyle, which you’ll find if you click through on ‘comments’.  In the example he mentions, I think I’d have been one of the coop members who were arguing for a 5% minimum quorum being sufficient.

More broadly I share Dave’s views on the need to discuss new forms of governance for coops.  We don’t all do traditional meetings.  Activist capture, it could perhaps be argued, may be as problematic for cooperative concepts of democracy as management capture.

How many is enough?: questioning quorums

Here’s the question:   how many members need to be present at a cooperative’s general meeting for it to be quorate?

I’ve been looking at a number of sets of rules adopted by cooperatives recently, and I’m concerned that there isn’t always enough care taken when fixing the size of the legal quorum for general meetings.  Too often, I think, quorums can be set too high, a reflection perhaps of the optimism which tends to be around when rules are first adopted.

It depends, of course, what sort of coop we’re talking about but the larger the potential membership, the more care needs to be taken not to put in place an unrealistically high quorum.  There’s nothing more demoralising for a coop than an inquorate meeting which can’t proceed to discuss the notified business:  those members who have bothered to turn out can feel they have wasted their time, and a downward spiral of ever-smaller meetings can result.

Of course, we all want cooperatives to be organisations where every member is fully engaged and committed.  But setting a low quorum when you set the rules isn’t an admission in advance of defeat.  The quorum isn’t the number of members you’d want ideally to show up or even the numbers you think you’d get for an evening meeting when the weather is poor and there’s a good programme on television.  It’s simply there as an emergency measure to prevent, in extremis,  a tiny handful of members being able to take legally binding decisions.  Only in exceptional circumstances should meetings ever be inquorate.

So I think I’d suggest that the community coop’s rulebook that I’ve got here which says “a quorum shall be three members or 20% of the membership, whichever is the greater” is probably setting the bar too high.  I fear that they could find in the future that their members’ meetings could – unnecessarily – be inquorate.  200 members, 39 show up, meeting can’t progress.

But let’s also not be foolish.  Another set of rules I have here says “Before any general meeting can start its business there must be a quorum present; a quorum is two members”.  That’s going the other way.