The Problem with Co-ops – No Boss

Britan 'does' big co-ops, like the Cooperative Group with its strong corporate culture and executive hierarchies. But Britain's record for small co-ops is poor, especially egalitarian collectives. In...

Britan 'does' big co-ops, like the Cooperative Group with its strong corporate culture and executive hierarchies. But Britain's record for small co-ops is poor, especially egalitarian collectives. In the 1970s and 80s thousands of worker co-ops were started by young people as a response to the last major recession, a decade of mass de-industrialisation when the normal jobs for young graduates in middle management disappeared. Where are the Mondragons and Emilia Romagnas that should have resulted.

My co-op, Suma, was started in the mid 70s. In 25 years Suma created 100 good cooperative jobs. In the same time Mondragon created 10,000.

Why don’t co-ops start and grow in Britain? Because British people don’t know how to behave and work together cooperatively? They only know hierarchical behaviour. They like the idea of cooperative behaviour but baulk at actually doing it. If they do start coops they mostly still don’t take advantage of the model because they ‘do their old jobs’ in the coop, behave as controllers or controlled, executives or operatives, because that is the way they know and it is safe. So coops in the UK operate like badly run ordinary businesses, ones which have ineffective bosses, instead of well functioning active democracies.

Giving such organisations hard business tools and opening up access to finance is inefficient, they can’t use them or it properly. Like giving someone a toolbox but not teaching them how to use the tools. It’s a typically British disease to under prioritise competency. The cult of the amateur is a very British delusion. We want to just have a go and learn by muddling through.

I would say that British cooperative development assistance has contributed to this by sticking to hard skills delivery and hoping someone else does the soft skills. In effect we assume there is a ‘hidden boss’ who will make people cooperate and make things happen once we go away. Many of our recommended procedures rely on 'committees' to plug this gap. In philosophical terms this is known as 'infinite regression'. We never actually pin down who we expect to be in charge with this systemic model of governance. In practice no-one is unless a boss arises or some form of collective governance is discovered.

Those co-ops which have found a way to resolve the lack of competency in cooperative behaviour skills out perform everything else. They can take and adapt other hard skills, recognising where they fit and where they don’t fit a cooperative business environment.We see this all over the world where cultures are less hierarchical and more egalitarian. The ideology of class runs deep in Britain.

>Essentially it's process versus system. Most management theory is based on the idea that organisations exist and are controllable systems, therefore executives can focus on the hard skills, planning, control, organisation, development, marketing, and the operatives service the systemic processes.

The new kind of post–systems process theory says the organisation does not exist as a 'reified' thing. Organisational reality is the (web of) relationships between the people and specifically the interplay of responsive communications between them. This merely gives the illusion of a system. (A web of) relationships cannot be controlled but it can be coordinated and facilitated. (The concept of a web is also a reified systemic concept, a social object which has no independant reality outside of our ideology, use with care)

Hierarchical organisations (including large corporate co-ops) can force people to fit the illusion. Collective cooperatives cannot. So systemic tools, hard skills, don’t work by themselves in egalitarian cooperatives.

Much cooperative development support is like generic business support and fails to address the soft skills, the relating skills ( communications. decisionmaking, collective working etc) without which small coops struggle to action the tools and plans. Because British people do not know how to relate to each other cooperatively. Its not in our culture unless it is oppositional, reactive and defensive, eg trades unions or football fandom.

Consequently we help people set up co-ops to struggle in a swamp of dysfunctional interpersonal relationships. No wonder they fail to grow as businesses or abandon cooperative principles in order to grow ( by instituting hierarchy and it's attendant alienation).

Thankfully new form of organisation arising from the activist movement are addressing these issues, group facilitation, concensus decisionmaking, non violent communication, emergent strategy are not alien concepts to the post systems generation even though they remain so to ours. Maybe they will see the need for a priori soft skills training.


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