The importance of co-operative business education

Opening the second day of the Co-operative Education Conference, Karen Miner, managing director of the Cooperative Management Education Program at St Mary’s University in Nova Scotia, Canada, explored co-operative...

Opening the second day of the Co-operative Education Conference, Karen Miner, managing director of the Cooperative Management Education Program at St Mary’s University in Nova Scotia, Canada, explored co-operative business education (CBE) – and why CBE uptake can sometimes be so low.

The scope for co-operative learning within businesses is huge, said Ms Miner, and is relevant to everyone from employees and managers to directors and executives.

“If we want our co-ops to be understood as co-ops and led by co-operative principles, we must have co-op business education,” she said, adding that co-ops needed to “maintain and strengthen their unique difference” while “building successful co-op enterprises”.

Co-operatives have the opportunity to start with the right business model

One way this can be achieved is through learners transferring skills gained through CBE into their business, she said. Three of the most important of these co-operative skills are governance, strategic planning and engagement.

Quebec Convention Centre where the International Summit of Cooperatives will take place in October
Quebec Convention Centre where the International Summit of Cooperatives will take place in October

Taking the fifth co-operative principle of education and training as a starting point, in 2014 Ms Miner worked with the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec to explore the impact of CBE. The research, which was presented at the 2014 International Summit of Cooperatives, looked at 300 graduates from 15 programmes in 10 countries, and 62 co-op sector partners from 11 countries. The study found high levels of satisfaction, and positive developments in behaviours and results.

Based on this report, “the co-op sector sees co-operative business education as a way to address the lack of co-op knowledge,” she said.

But, asked Ms Miner, when this is the case, “why aren’t more co-operatives sending more people through CBE programmes?”

The supply and availability of relevant CBE programmes isn’t the issue, she said. Instead, the problem predominantly lies in two distinct areas. Firstly, “some co-operatives are not in tune with their co-op identity”, and instead of seeing CBE as a necessary part of nurturing co-operative identity within its employee community, some organisations see it “as a business decision” that is weighed up as part of business costs.

The second reason is visibility. “How many co-op business education programmes can you list?” she asked delegates.

If people had more exposure to co-ops during [formal] education, we would be so far ahead

Ms Miner explained how the programmes available internationally were hugely diverse, covering different levels of prior knowledge and for different staffing positions within an organisation. Online CBE learning was also a big element, she added.

In the UK, the Co-operative College offers a range of training programmes designed to meet the needs of members, directors, managers and employees of co-operatives and mutual organisations nationally. And from Spain, Mondragon runs an online MA covering the social and co-operative economy (available globally, but in Spanish).

For Ms Miner, successful CBE is education that integrates co- operative values and principles throughout the learning process. “If people had more exposure to co-ops during [formal] education, we would be so far ahead,” she said.

Another sign of success would be strong and lasting partnerships between the co-op sector and co-op business education programmes, she said, with more collaboration between the two.

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