Key takeaways from the Practitioners Forum 2023

The event featured up to 20 sessions across five specialist forums: membership, governance, finance, human resources and communications

This year’s Practitioners Forum brought together around 150 exhibitors, trainers and employees of co-ops in Manchester for a day of training and development.

Organised by Co-operatives UK, the forum featured nearly 20 sessions across five specialist forums: membership, governance, finance, human resources and communications, with participants able to choose sessions to attend.

In one of the finance sessions, Matt Lomax from Mazars Accountants provided tips for successful digital strategies, which, he said, tend to feature common foundational building blocks. 

He defined digital as using current and emerging technologies to create new or reimagine processes, products and experiences. While the scale of challenges faced by small and larger co-ops varies, the challenges they face are similar, he added. This means that more and more businesses are developing digital strategies or integrating digital elements into their business strategies, including regarding the use of artificial intelligence and data.

Digital opportunities such as process automation, cloud computing, data analytics, fintech integration, AI and virtual/mixed realities and citizen developers (employees who create application capabilities) should all be looked at in conjunction rather than in isolation, added Lomax. He warned that doing things in isolation without a strategy that brings all the parts of the business together is unlikely to bring successful outcomes.

Matt Lomax from Mazars Accountants

Many businesses, including co-ops, are exploring the risks and opportunities brought by generative AI such as ChatGPT. Lomax warned that , with AI having potential access to vast amounts of data, the right systems must be put in place to prevent it from revealing too much information.

Some of the biggest risks to the effectiveness of digital strategies include executive alignment (the number one risk factor), poorly defined key results and benefits, lack of focus on the customer, digital expectation gap (organisations wanting to do a lot with too little), data and cybersecurity (must always be taken into account) and culture of failure (understanding that things might not work at first but seeking to continue improving).

“A strategy is only as good as the value it creates,” said Lomax. His main steps for an effective strategy are understanding where the business is, identifying where the business needs to be to achieve its goals, prioritising the digital initiatives that will deliver the most value, having a detailed plan for how to deliver the strategy, measuring the benefits and results, and sharing the victories while learning from the failures.

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The forum also looked at ways to support neurodiversity in the workplace, with Snoof Kattekop from the Brain Charity encouraging businesses to accommodate people based on need, not on diagnosis.

She explained that a person who is neurodivergent has learning or processing differences such as ADHD (5%), dyslexia (10%), dyscalculia (5%), dysgraphia (1.8%-4.9%) or Tourette’s syndrome (1%). It is common for neurodivergent people to have multiple types of neurodivergence. Kattekop pointed out that every condition is unique and can present in many ways, which can provide challenges from an HR perspective.

She also suggested looking for signs that people are disengaged or overcommitting to prevent employees from burning out, whether they are neurodivergent or not. Supportive measures could include flexibility around start times and deadlines, setting up a buddy or mentorship system to enable colleagues to help each other, and creating teams of people who have different skill sets, taking into account the Nine Belbin Team Roles – a managerial behaviour model devised in the 1970s by consultant Raymond Meredith Belbin.

Other suggestions included having neurodiversity champions in the workplace, giving information and instructions both verbally and written, considering breaking down tasks into component parts, discussing distractions and allowing regular short breaks with movement opportunities.

Kattekop also recommended bringing acceptance into the recruitment process, having transparent hiring processes, asking if any accommodations are needed ahead of and during interviews, and creating an inclusive and welcoming environment where everyone knows that the enterprise is behind them and committed to looking after them. Enterprises can also seek funding from the Access to Work scheme, she added.

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Finally, she suggested that enterprises with skill shortages look at neurodivergent talent, and form partnerships with neurodivergent charities to make sure their message about being neurodivergent-inclusive gets out.

The forum also included a range of sessions to equip participants with new skills and knowledge to take their communication strategies to the next level. In one of these, Amrit Singh from Rebel Creatives described how co-ops could tell their stories using short-term videos. 

Popular forms of short-term content include funny and inspirational clips, street interviews, sneak peeks and behind-the-scenes footage, informational and educational content, and a day-in-the-life clips.

The attention span for short-form videos is 1.2 seconds, said Singh. His tips for creating quality content included thinking about the cover image, telling a story, being creative with props, adding music, sound effects and subtitles within the platform, and finishing with a call to action.

In the event’s joint session on membership and governance, Emma Laycock from Co-operatives UK and Ben Thomas from Mi-Voice – which has over 500 clients who use their services every year, including Lincolnshire Co-op – explored how technology could be used to encourage member engagement.

Technological advancements have made it harder for co-ops to navigate different voting platforms, warned Thomas. But at the same time, Covid-19 has led to an increase in participation in democratic processes, with many organisations doubling or trebling the number of people attending AGMs. However, co-ops should take into account that individuals attending virtually participate less in the AGM than those attending in person.

Participating in an election is different from participating in an AGM, Thomas added, encouraging co-ops to separate their approach the two, and to send separate communication. He argued that technology can allow members to make more informed decisions about the candidates they are voting for, provide a more convenient way for members to vote, and reduce the cost per vote.

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Co-ops should also set success criteria for elections – for example, participation/turnout, voting before/during the meeting, ease of voting, or management of Q&As. In terms of raising awareness about elections, Thomas suggested sending email reminders to members and promoting these on social media. 

Another issue co-ops should take into account is being inclusive, by offering different voting options, from traditional hard copies sent via post to website or mobile voting. Elections reporting should also be dynamic, in real-time to allow co-ops to react, he said.

Thomas advised co-ops to take into account the different costs associated with hosting AGMs, be they in-person, online or hybrid. Hybrid meetings require a lot of planning, taking into account several considerations, including technical aspects such as connectivity, camera angles and sound. Other considerations are selecting a platform people are used to, enabling registration and advance submission of questions, and having a backup plan in case things go wrong.

The forum also featured sessions on sustainability reporting for co-ops; cyber threats; diversity and inclusion in communications and marketing; increasing younger membership through digital content; accounting; maximising the value of data; hybrid and flexible working; raising capital and social investment options; employment law and creating audio content and podcasts.