Worker Co-op Weekend 2015

Maria
Maria takes a sideways look at all things agile and collective.
Cooperate or Die

This year Youlbury Scout Camp in Oxford hosted the 2015 Worker Co-op Weekend, an event for worker co-operatives to come together to share experiences, learn from each other, bond, socialise, network and have some fun.

Principle 6 Networking

We came in - late - to a room full of co-operators taking part in the Principle Six networking event facilitated by Sion Whellens from Principle6.coop and Calverts.coop. Based on the BNI breakfast networking events, this version relies on the co-operative principle (number 6: “Co-operation among co-operatives”) to allow the participants to ask for and receive referrals from each other for what they really need - be it about clients, members, financing or advice.

The skill to learn in such an event is to hone your pitch - who you are, what you do, why you are good and who you really want to meet. This is a surprisingly hard thing to do when put on the spot. Whether you like the format or not, it is a good “icebreaker” as you get a sense of what everyone’s doing, and ways in which you may be able to help others.

There were 3 slots the following day, with a choice of 3 sessions in each. I attended the following sessions:

Choosing co-op friendly management tools for worker co-ops

Led by the ever-generous Bob from Suma Wholefoods, we shared our experiences of trying to implement mainstream management tools and systems in to the worker co-operative.

The common trials faced in a worker co-operative are

  • Everyone AND no-one is “in charge” so management tools have to be participatory rather than top-down.

  • All members are equal so individuals can feel unable to have the authority to act.

  • Co-operative members often have many roles within the company so systems that encourage momentum, and don’t eat up precious resources, are preferable.

  • Decision making, budgeting and strategy have to be participatory.

Without going into detail on everything discussed, and acknowledging that perhaps particularly for co-operatives there is no one-size-fits-all, the preference for worker co-operatives were for processes which were conversational rather than pre/proscriptive.

One thing Bob shared from his own research is the distinction between “Management as status” and “Management as function”.

This instinct also tended us towards processes such as participatory decision making, participatory budgeting (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Participatory_budgeting), peer and self assessment for appraisals, iterative and engaging project management (Agile or scrum-based project management), emergent strategies and internal mediation training to resolve internal disputes.

One thing we didn’t discuss, but that Bob shared from his own research and that I’d like to ponder more on is the distinction between “Management as status” and “Management as function”.

Marketing and Communication

Debbie from co-operative grocery, Unicorn, gave us an overview of how they have gone about their marketing and communication. The main takeaway for me was to concentrate on promoting what you do anyway, rather than to come up with a marketing plan which is seperate from your day-to-day business and just add to the workload.

  • Let other people advertise for you. By being good at what you do, let and encourage other people to recommend you through word of mouth, social media or mainstream media.

  • Concentrate on your co-operative’s passion and ethics in newsletters, website, in-store displays, events.

  • Think about what you don't say. Think about how right-on words come across to your customers.

  • Be embedded in the community. Unicorn give talks in schools, trying to fit something in with the school’s curriculum, they provide a venue for community events and offer prizes for charity events etc.

  • Identify and challenge negative perceptions people may have.

  • Keep a consistent brand.

Human Resources

Hosted by the lovely Britta Werner from Unicorn, we began by discussing the member job description but moved into general HR questions.

The main theme of this particular discussion is how to encourage the membership participation in the co-operative. The member job description is an attempt to define what this side of the job is, in order to be able to hire and appraise people against it.

The worker co-operative model brings a lot of human resources questions which are interesting but specific to each organisation. As the nominal Human Resources person at Agile Collective I find a new question to tackle every month. The worker co-op community is always so generous in sharing its experiences, and there are many interesting and sometimes radical ways of tackling the sometimes tedious questions of pay structure, line management and appraisals. 

Cooperative Singsong

Other things

There are great opportunities to talk to people doing interesting things throughout the day. In some ways, the conversations you have between sessions are just as beneficial as the sessions themselves.

We learnt about new, exciting ventures such as Founders and Coders, a not-for-profit social enterprise and freelance co-operative who do software development, and educational programmes.

Finn and I were on a mission to extract as much information as we could about self-facilitation and co-operative strategy making and we did this through asking people how they do it, hunting down the (many) experts and asking advice.

The Saturday evening finished with a reasonably raucous campfire, which had to be relocated twice in order to let the local scouts sleep. We co-operated happily with these requests at the end of what had been a wonderful day. 

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