21 September 2009

Principle 6: Trading together, do we?

When I first learnt about co-operatives, I thought Principle 6: Co-operating with other Co-operatives was the most powerful of all the principles and gave co-operatives a serious competitive advantage against other forms of business and other social enterprises for that matter.

I imagined this to be like being in the Freemasons, or going to the right University. The right handshake, name dropping Horace, George, or the Fenwick Weavers and you would be instantly given all the advice, business contacts and co-operation you required from fellow members of the movement.

Now that I have been "in the movement" for 18 months and talked to a lot of co-operatives, I find that this is not always the case, particularly the trading together aspect of Principle 6. There is interest though: for some a genuine commitment to a stronger movement and helping fellow co-ops, for others its just good business sense.

People do try and are successful, but this is mainly the larger co-operatives or in an informal way. There are some who try to inter-trade, market to fellow co-operatives and don't meet with much success. There has even been a proposal put forward to develop a business referral network called "principle six". So does it work? Can co-operatives trade together?

Some examples of success:
  • Fair trade & supporting producers in developing countries - A good example is Palestinian Olive Producers supported by Zaytoun & Olive Co-op are selling under the Equal Exchange label in Co-operative retailers like the Co-operative Group and the many smaller retailers. The wider fair trade work done by the co-operative movement has helped 1000s of farmer co-operatives round the world.
  • Initial growth in Co-operative Sector - Historically the consumer societies had a strong tradition of co-operating with each other, the formation of the Co-operative Wholesale Society and CRTG.
  • The Co-operative - The Renaissance in the Co-operative Brand and the sector as a whole is in part down to the continuing co-operation between the consumer societies.
  • The Phone Coop - has been particularly successful at using other co-operatives to promote its services, Co-operatives UK members for example get a 6% discount and we promote this as part of our membership offer.
Through formal co-operating (CRTG) , to the less formal (worker co-op wholesaler selling each other products), co-operatives can and do co-operate. What I am interested in, is why small and medium sized co-operatives and in particular worker co-operatives find it difficult to trade together. This is not just about inter-trading but doing joint projects, making business referrals to each other.

Here's one idea for doing using Principle 6 to trade together, (send me more):
Joint marketing is the process of promoting your co-op to the customers of other co-ops. For example, suppose you wholesale ethical products to small ethical retailers, your customers, probably have a website, bank account, phone line, and you would hope accounts.

You could ask co-op providers of these services to offer a benefit to your customers (of course with an extra discount if these customers are co-ops themselves). If your products are relevant to their customers you could mirror the deal and promote to their customers. This could result in a win-win situation for both of you.

Step 1 - Understand your numbers. You'll need these to demonstrate how much money your fellow co-op could make. For instance, work out what your response rate is for a typical direct-mail campaign and the value of each new customer.

Step 2 - List products and services that are complementary or related to your own, and that you would like to offer your customers. Don't leave out products or services that aren't necessarily related but in which your customers might still be interested.

Step 3 - Search for co-ops that sell those products and services. Then contact those people and propose a meeting to explain your strategy further or get in touch with me to make the link.

Step 4 - Get an agreement. When negotiating your deal, always try to get an agreement to extend your relationship and be clear what you both expect from each other.

Step 5 - Contact Co-operatives UK so we can promote what you have achieved, share the learning or even better get us involved in the idea from the start.

Before you go and start looking for opportunities:

How much trade do we already do with each other?
What stops us from doing more?
What things could we do to improve it?

If you are as interested in the answers to these questions as I am please fill in this quick survey and I will publish the results at the end of October. Together we can look at improving our Principle 6 behaviour. Please leave any comments on this blog or start a discussion here.

17 September 2009

Principle 5: Learning together to be a better co-op

A post from Adrian Ashton sharing his thoughts on training - Training...an idea that either fills you with enthusiasm, or fills you with dread (depending on your experience of previous trainers). Or, maybe something that your co-op regularly budgets for (in cash and time), or views as a luxury – to be undertaken only if someone else is paying and no-one's off sick or on holiday...

Whatever our feelings may be, training and learning are key aspects of any co-operative enterprise: remember, in the absence of a legal definition of what constitutes a co-operative business in the UK we rely on being identified by our values and principles which include:
  • Principle 5, A commitment to the education, training of members and workers.
So, we need to do be doing this, but what if we're facing some of the constraints listed above? It's not uncommon for co-ops to have had bad experiences with trainers who didn't 'get' what a co-op is, nor in this current training climate to be facing difficultly in justifying spend on training courses.

There is a solution which also neatly fits with another of our defining characteristics:
  • Principle 6 Co-operation between Co-operatives - We should work together at local, regional, national and international levels to achieve our aims.
As a movement, we've fundamentally changed the way business is done by showing that our alternative model can not only work, but also is also a very powerful tool to address all sorts of issues in our society and world. In doing so, we've created a lot of knowledge, expertise and skill.

So how do we look outside of ourselves to source training?
We've an internationally recognised College that specialises in co-operative learning, most relevant for small and medium co-operatives at the moment is a practical work-based learning scheme.

We have numerous networks (both local, regional and on-line). Many co-operatives informally support each other from phone calls, and visits to staff swaps. We now also have tools to allow us to measure our performance against our defining values and principles (CESPIs) so can even more easily identify who we might want to approach to ask for some ideas...

Above all – remember learning doesn't have to be a stuffy formal classroom affair: it can be done as a shared activity with other co-ops, be as simple as reading and article or listening to a podcast, or even spending time down the pub with other co-op members.

What's stopping you?
What is stopping us from learning together, post your challenges here, or on our facebook group and lets see what we can all do to suggest 'work-arounds' to them.

Comments from John Atherton
From talking with members I hear of lots ways members are or have learned together.

Daily Bread and Unicorn used to do staff exchanges, as did Brixton Cycles and Bicycle Doctor does anyone still do these, or would they like me to facilitate exchanges?

Becky of Who Made Your Pants recently visited Infinity to learn about engaging members in the Co-operative Culture. Both parties even got paid for this through a NCVO fund called Only Connect.

Members are always asking for example policies and procedures, and I share what I have on a resources page for worker co-operatives (I am always looking for new resources and links to add).

We are developing an online resources repository, wiki and the ability to discuss issues with other members on a new Business Networking Website (more information on this in November).

I agree with Adrian, there are lots of opportunties for co-operatives to learn from each other. What are your barriers to doing more?