What is co-op culture?

‘A focused organisational culture gives a co-operative a sense of mission that makes it a formidable competitor’

The August 2019 edition of Co-op News focuses on co-operative culture – but what does that mean? Anca Voinea investigates. Keep following the News over the coming days for more analysis – from how we bring young people to an established movement and the influence of faith, to questions of how co-op culture is compatible with leadership and growth.

When a business’s culture is properly aligned with personal values, drives, and needs, it can help to unleash energy and help the organisation thrive. With co-ops driven by specific values and principles, it can be argued that their approach leads to the emergence of a specific organisational culture.

Yet while organisational culture has been studied extensively around the world, that of co-ops has been overlooked.

In February 2018, Harvard Law Review defined corporate culture as the tacit social order of an organisation, which shapes attitudes and behaviours.

So what is co-operative culture? Ed Mayo, secretary general of Co-operatives UK, says: “If you ask people to think of a time when their co-op was at its very best, the answers are typically about co-op culture – how people pulled together, achieved something ambitious, took care of those in need. All of these reflect behaviour, attitudes and beliefs – and this is what we mean by co-op culture.”

Mr Mayo thinks there is no one identity across organisations, but multiple personalities influenced by factors such as environment, colleagues and the nature of a co-op’s work. “What ties us all together are the underlying co-op values and principles,” he adds.

The topic was explored in a 2004 article in the Journal of Rural Co-operation, which looks at agricultural co-ops in the USA. It is based on 30 interviews with regional and local co-op managers by author Julie A. Hogeland in the years 2000/2002.

Examining the unified aspect of co-op culture, the research suggests these include altruism, not exploiting the business for a profit; emphasising service over making money; preferring to subordinate individual goals to the good of the whole; and valuing equality.

The study found that this is stronger in older, multi-commodity co-operatives that were created in an era when altruism, a core co-op value, mattered greatly to producers; but it is of relatively less importance to members of contemporary new-generation co-operatives.

Related: Co-ops are for public, not private benefit: Movement looks to build a fairer economy

“Culture represents shared systems of meaning, including values, priorities, and beliefs. A focused organisational culture gives a co-operative a sense of mission that makes it a formidable competitor,” reads the paper.

Mr Mayo says co-op culture is also important for authenticity. “There are huge potential gains when people come together around shared values, but for so many companies, the gap between their values and reality is a gulf. This can create cynicism and disengagement.

“It’s important values are not just a poster on a wall; they must be reflected in genuine behaviour. It’s the large and small actions taken every day that create a truly co-op culture – which becomes an asset and a point of difference.”

While there has been a sea change in mainstream business towards culture and purpose, Mr Mayo thinks the most common mistake is to believe that executive leaders lead action on culture.

Related: Ed Mayo on co-op values in the modern world

He adds: “At their best, they facilitate. They help make it possible for people to act in line with their own values. What executive leaders can do, because they are so visible, is to mess things up, as we know from countless examples in the corporate world – so integrity matters.

How can co-ops revive their culture? Mr Mayo says: “Think about which co-ops’ brand values and culture you respect and would like to emulate – many I’m sure would be pleased to help others learn and develop. We are always happy to make introductions. So much of business is hardware. Money, sales inventory, buildings… Co-op culture is the software. Just try running a computer – or a business – without it.”