Meet … Rory Ridley-Duff, co-op educator at Sheffield Business School

'For me, co-operative education is stronger when it distinguishes mutuality from philanthropy and individual self-interest'

Rory Ridley-Duff is a researcher and educator on co-operative and social enterprise management at Sheffield Business School, based at Sheffield Hallam University, founder of the FairShares Association, and a poet and musician. He is currently chair of the UK Society for Co-operative Studies.

How did you get involved in co-ops?

I got interested in co-ops after reading The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. After university, I freelanced doing computer programming until I spotted an opening at Computercraft (a worker co-operative in London). I joined in 1989 and became CEO a decade later. We studied Oakeshott’s The Case for Worker Co-operatives, which describes the Mondragon co-ops. This led us to introduce ‘capital accounts’ and small wage differentials (1.5 to 1). After moving to Yorkshire, I enrolled at Leeds University where I did a research project to investigate the impact of common ownership on management styles in worker co-operatives. This led to a PhD scholarship to Sheffield Hallam in 2002. In 2007, I secured a permanent post there and developed research that led to a professorship in 2018. 

What co-operatives are you involved with today?

Today I’m a member of many co-operatives but focus my energy on two that do research and development on co-ops. The first, UK Society for Co-operative Studies, is a charitable association that publishes the Journal of Co-operative Studies. The second, FairShares Association Ltd, registered in 2015 to protect members’ intellectual property (IP) for multi-stakeholder co-operatives.

How did the FareShares model develop?

The catalyst was summer schools held at Sheffield Hallam University and York St John University (2009 to 2014) where we included sessions on multi-stakeholder design. A group of participants started using the word ‘FairShares’ to express sharing power and wealth amongst ‘primary’ stakeholders. We met to mould their thoughts into a viable model for multi-stakeholder co-operatives and published a discussion document. 

So, a small group of summer school students, consultants and researchers formed the association that now has 60 members in five continents and a mailing list of about 1,700. Members support the creation and conversion of multi-stakeholder co-operatives using FairShares IP through their entrepreneurial, teaching and research activities. A few have made big commitments by establishing incubators (e.g. Evolutesix and Solve Earth). Others have created FairShares enterprises (e.g. Resonate in Ireland, and VME Co-op in Malta/Scotland).

The EU helped fund courses, role plays and tools that complement model rules for societies, companies, associations and partnerships. The EU also funded pilot incubators in Germany, Croatia, Hungary, Netherlands and UK. The future will probably be guided by entrepreneurial communities like Evolutesix’s Evoluter, which coached VME Co-op on sociocracy. A new book by Graham Boyd (Evolutesix Founder) and Jack Reardon (a US professor) sets out argument for FairShares Commons Companies. Internationally, over 200 entrepreneurs and 30 educators have used FairShares IP in their work across 37 countries. 

You are writing a book called The Roads to New Co-operativism. What is this?

Marcelo Vieta coined the term ‘new co-operativism’ to describe the co-operation and solidarity of social movements in South America and parts of Europe. Students attending our summer school remarked that it was aligned to elements of the FairShares Model (multi-stakeholder design, worker ownership, ‘commons’ IP). My book will explore the nature of, and support systems, for new co-operativism. I’ve just published an argument in the Journal of Co-operative Studies that these are important social innovations for fostering inter-co-operation at different levels. 

What is the importance of co-operative education?

For me, co-operative education is stronger when it distinguishes mutuality from philanthropy and individual self-interest. Group behaviour research does not always support the argument that collective decision-making produces better ideas. Instead, it finds that loose networks of self-regulating individuals generate more and better ideas. That presents a challenge to co-operative education and management thinking because fostering co-operative cultures in which individuals transact for mutual benefit is different to fostering collectivism. Loose networks of co-operators may be more important to (re)building the co-operative advantage. Hence, we need to investigate sociocratic management methods and their implications for Principle 2.

Why don’t schools (at all levels) teach more about co-operatives – and what can be done about this?

Many countries have been deeply affected by neo-liberal doctrine. We have been schooled in the idea that individuals are responsible for their own outcomes. This devalues mutuality as an organising principle and learning method. Fortunately, evidence of alternatives is widely available.

There are good examples in countries I’ve visited. In Indonesia, credit unions implement the concept of arisan – a support system through which families help each other to speak before their peers, improve their capacity to articulate themselves and improve their negotiation skills. At secondary level, one of my EU projects reported on 600 Spanish schools that formed class co-operatives. Students had to decide aspects of their constitution, create products for markets and reinvest financial surpluses in their school. 

Related: More from this month’s education edition

At university level, the Enterprise Degree at Mondragon has a good record. It begins with students forming co-operative associations that trade to cover education costs. Students take responsibility for other student’s progression. Ten-week courses are replaced with intensive two-week courses. Lastly, Saint Mary’s University (in Canada) gets its co-operative management students to co-author using Wikis, with group and individual marks based on collective and individual contributions. The failure of one student can mean the failure of the group, so inter-cooperation and care for others are embedded in the culture.

What is your hope for the future of co-operative education?

I hope English co-operators will value co-operative education like their international counterparts. The attempts by Jan Myers at Gloucester University, myself at Sheffield Hallam and the Co-op College (in Manchester) to establish degree courses struggled because there is a lack of demand. Counterparts in France, Spain and Italy are teaching co-op managers about the social economy because many will not get a job if they do not have a suitable Masters qualification. If it were the same in the UK, it would put rocket fuel into our co-operative education system. 

I sincerely hope that larger actors like the Co-op Group, Midcounties, John Lewis, Arup, Central England and Southern Co-op will look beyond their attachment to Co-op Academy Schools and support the Co-op College’s Co-operative University plan. Mutual gains would accrue each year that members, workers, managers and directors receive an education through it.

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