Finding your voice: how the Co-op Group is giving members say

“The concept of members having a say in their society is older than the Rochdale Pioneers,” says Mark Robinson-Field, national co-operative and membership manager at the Co-op Group.

It’s an integral part of the co-op business model, but it also comes with big consequences. How is the Group working to give ordinary members a direct say and influence in the organisation?

Mark has been in membership for over 20 years, and is now working with members to develop the Group’s thinking on member voice.

“The biggest problem is that member voice, as a concept, is enormous,” he says. “It has massive implications for everything, from how you change the culture of the society so it’s more open to listening to members, to how you do things in the community in terms of democratic processes and systems.”

The team started small, running workshops around the UK asking members: “What does member voice mean to you?”

Answers included voting and standing in elections, being able to let the organisation know what service has been like in local stores, giving feedback on products, getting involved in events and activities, and helping develop products and services.

“Part of our remit was going back to talking to our members,” says Mark, “so we’ve had to try to park our assumptions, and prove things by talking to members.”

“We compiled about 48 different elements and put these back in front of members, asking them to prioritise which ones they felt would give them a bigger voice and add more value to their membership,” says Mark.

“Members worked in groups, so we were able to listen in to the arguments for different elements, which helped us understand more about which ones people liked and why.

“By working with a group of people that didn’t really understand what member voice is, this allowed us to unpick what member voice could be.”

Mark at a user-testing session at the Group’s headquarters
Mark with members at a user-testing session at the Group’s headquarters

He explains how three key elements emerged from the workshops. “The first was product collaboration – actually having an opportunity to join in with a team when they are developing products and services – including policy decisions and campaigns, not just tins of beans.

“The second element was around service – how members could feed back on service in stores and see what was being done to address that feedback.

“The final one was around the need for members to be able to highlight issues and ideas and concepts to their co-op that they would like us to take on.”

So far the team’s work has focused on the product collaboration element, with an emphasis on working with members throughout the process.

“We’ve gone on to look at what opportunities we could engage on with, how we might present them, what technology we can use to feed back,” says Mark. “All of this is the still the first stage, the first foundation based on what members told us – now the real work starts.”

Part of that work is sifting through and responding in some way to feedback, whether it’s good, bad or ugly.

“All feedback is obviously great, but you’ve got to be ready for brutally honest feedback and you need to be able to listen to that,” he says.

Working with engaged members is brilliant, he adds, but “really interesting feedback comes from ordinary members who can challenge your way of thinking and ask things like: ‘Why does this matter to me? Why would I want to do this? How do I know you’re actually listening and not just wasting my time?’”

Through a pilot with colleague members, the member voice team “learned a lot about how members would interact with different opportunities to engage,” he says.

“What we didn’t want to do was to create something where the only way members could participate was through attending an event. Looking at it through a digital-first element, how could we get people to engage?

“The pilot probably raised more questions than it answered but that’s a good thing. We learned a lot about how people engage with the content … we’ve been able to make some of those small changes already.”

One of these changes is the way an activity is presented. While the theme of an activity is the thing that would get people initially interested, the next stage is: ‘What’s in it for me?’

“That sounds cynical, but it’s not at all,” says Mark. “It’s not about a free product, but about ‘Why should I give up my time, why do I want to engage?’ The ‘why’ part is the real motivator.”

He gives the example of a wine activity trial. “I spent the whole day in our Holmfirth store trying to sell the concept of giving away a case of wine to members – it was harder than you think! The case of wine got them halfway interested, but then they were looking for the catch.

“We were trying to get members to create content that other members would benefit from. Rather than information about our wines coming from marketing teams or wine professionals, it was about putting real people’s views in front of members. Once you could explain that, people were on board.”

The result now is a leaner process – one that very quickly puts the ‘why’ in front of members in a much simpler conversation.

“In membership we often try to explain everything at once – we’ve found that is off-putting, so we now look at it as a journey, which seems to be much more effective.”

Mark will be sharing the lessons of this process at Co-operative UK’s Practitioners’ Forum on 17 November.

“We’ve had a period of time where we’ve just had to crack on and learn from members, but I hope that the conference is a way of re-opening the conversation around sharing ideas around membership,” he says.

“We’re also lucky in that we have really good relationships with other societies’ membership teams. What we’ve been learning, we have shared with other co-op societies – and what they’ve learned, we have taken on board too.”

He adds: “One of the things I’m most proud of is fact that that members have genuinely been part of the development of member voice and will continue to be – that’s the whole premise of it.

“Although we will learn from each other, we will never stop developing member voice – there will never be a final version.”