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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

The Cooperative Index Tool

August 25, 2010
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One of the last workshops of the National Worker Co-operative Conference introduced the Co-operative Index to a United States audience. Before going into the details of this tool, it needs to have a bit of the history explained.

In 2005, Johnston Birchall addressed the International Co-operative community. It was the occasion of the the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the Statement on the Co-operative Identity. Prof. Birchall called for the community to "operationalize" the statement. In effect, to take the document off of the wall and out from under glass and make it part of the day-to-day decision-making process of our co-operatives. He used a phrase that had already started spreading around the movement: "market the co-operative advantage" or MOCA. However, he also used another phrase: "Managing the co-operative difference." Birchall argued that we really can't create a co-operative competitive advantage until we manage our co-operatives differently from our competitors.

In 2003, the St. Mary's MMCCU program had begun towards this end, but the rest of the co-operative world had yet to really embrace the statement. It needed a push and Birchall gave it one. The folks at St. Mary's also heard his call. While they were busy improving their Master program, they were also looking for opportunities to highlight the co-op difference and create the competitive advantage.

John Chamard, Sonja Novkovic and Tom Webb discovered a Polish professor of organizational psychology who had developed a method of measuring participatory workplaces with an eye towards helping them to improve themselves. His name is Ryzard Stocki and he created the Open Index as a tool for non-profits to measure themselves against their ideals. It was decided to see if such a tool could be developed for co-operatives and that the best sector to start with was the worker co-op sector. In 2008, the St. Mary's team brought together a group of Co-op developers from Canada and worker co-op practitioners. I was one of the participants in a weekend long session of developing an "ideal" worker co-operative against which we could measure real world worker co-operatives. It was an exciting, and at times frustrating, process. In the end, we created a framework for a diagnostic tool that worker co-operatives could use that was different than tools such as the SA8000, World Blu Democratic workplace survey, or other such measurements. At the New Orleans meeting of the US Federation of Worker Co-operatives, the Federation membership agreed to support it.

We based our tool on the Identity Statement and the principles of Mondragon that go beyond the identity statement (sovereignty of labor, subordinate nature of capital, payment solidarity, and participatory management). The tool was fine-tuned and then put into the field to test its effectiveness. After the initial attempts were made, the reports were analyzed and the tool was fine tuned. It is now ready for a mass distribution. The workshop was its official exposure to a US audience.

What is the Tool?

The tool is a lengthy survey designed to measure the perceptions of immediate stakeholders in a worker co-operative (separating those who identify as "leaders" with those who identify as "rank-and-file"). It asks questions designed to rate the ability of the cooperative to meet its obligations under the identity statement: Values, Ethics, Principles as well as its organizational ability to meet its members' needs. It creates an index for the co-operative to measure across time and, eventually, will create an index to measure against other worker co-operatives.

There are two methods of using the tool. It can be used for a very brief snap shot of the "state of the cooperative" or it can be part of a more intensive triangulation of issues facing the cooperative. In either case, it can, and should, help influence strategic planning, education, training, and leadership development. At the national and international level, it can help planner determine workshop needs and membership needs.

The first method is the simplest and cheapest. The co-operative works with someone from St. Mary's to set up the survey (more information is available from either the US Federation or the Canadian Worker Cooperative Federation). The co-operative participates with a very real goal of 100% participation by its members. The assistant helps produce a report that distills the scores on a maturity index for the different segments: values, organizational, principles, etc.

The more involved method involves have the assistant work with a small committee of the co-operative. this could be the social audit committee or the strategic planning committee. Ideally, it is a committee of members representing the cooperative stakeholders (i.e. not all directors, or all rank-and-file). The survey gets completed as before, but the adviser also helps the committee build a document base to examine how the perceptions of the survey interact with actual policy and practice of the co-operative. This allows the committee to make solid recommendations on structure, operations, and governance as a means of improving the co-operative along the maturity curve.

Ideally, a co-operative might do the full process every three to five years and the short process annually. Obviously, the size and nature of the co-operative will make some differences in the process. However, even smaller co-operatives might find that they have a disconnect between groups within the co-operative.

This tool can help co-ops dig below the surface issues to get at root causes of problems and provide strong solutions. On the other hand, the tool can help co-operatives see where their strengths are and help them learn to share those strengths with other co-operatives.

The initial work on this tool has been so successful and the support for it so enthusiastic that the Canadian Co-operative Association received a substantial grant to design similar tools for the other sectors. The call the overall project "Measuring the Co-operative Difference Research Network". Hit the link for more details.

With the development of the Democracy at Work Network of peer advisers coming on-line in January and the advent of the Co-op Index Tool, Federation member co-operatives and all worker co-operatives in Canada and the United States will have a powerful means of analyzing their processes, their policies and the functioning of their co-operative as a co-operative. This, in turn, will allow them to not just "manage the co-operative difference" but create a strong competitive advantage for themselves and other worker co-ops. This project is exactly, in my opinion, the sort of thing that the Federation was founded to accomplish. It allows us to bring our considerable brain power together in an act of mutual self-help and solidarity with the goal of creating strong sustainable workplaces and communities.

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