How to generate and nurture a strong co-operative culture

Talking about governance problems at the Co-operative Group, our friend and fellow co-operator Sion Whellens, of worker co-operative Calverts Design & Print, said “co-operative culture eats co-operative governance...

Talking about governance problems at the Co-operative Group, our friend and fellow co-operator Sion Whellens, of worker co-operative Calverts Design & Print, said “co-operative culture eats co-operative governance for breakfast!”

This got us thinking – is there too much emphasis on governance and not enough on the co-operative culture that supports it? At Co-operantics, we help other co-ops to focus on using co-operative skills effectively, so we were keen to find out.

We set out to explore how co-ops develop and maintain a strong co-operative culture by speaking to seven very different co-operatives. 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 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 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.

So what did we learn from our discussions? Here are six top tips:

  1.  Shared vision

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

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 because it is run by its members.

  1. Excellent communications

We agree with Suma’s Bob Cannell, when quoting Ralph Stacey, who 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 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

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

This is 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 around the rules, with a damaging effect on morale and initiative. 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.

The conversations we had 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 that 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 five: 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 up answers to questions up without the need to hold a meeting
  • 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.

• This article is co-authored by Kate[at] and Nathan[at] at Co-operantics based on a number of conversations that are published online:

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