I have spent the last week at an uplifting Co-operative Summit in Quebec. This included nearly 2,800 participants from 91 countries – including a healthy presence from the vigorous co-operative sector in Quebec and Canada more widely.
A ‘future co-operative leaders’ programme ran alongside the official event. Plus the programme included a pre-conference on co-operative economics (to which I contributed) and the official summit.
There was a strong and welcome emphasis on understanding the co-operative experience worldwide. As part of this, a series of studies were launched over the event, all completed in partnership by different private sector professional service firms – some of whom, like McKinsey, have certainly not been advocates of co-operative models before:
The declaration from the event was also a good reflection of the programme content and the inputs from these studies.
What emerged from the official conference was a strong sense of relevance and confidence in the co-operative model, with the welcome recognition provided by a series of external speakers.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter of Harvard Business School, though, provided a fourfold challenge to the cooperative sector, arguing that:
1. purpose ought to be our advantage but often we don’t communicate it internally and externally well enough
2. we are not leading enough on social innovation, even if our members ought to support these and they can lead onto commercial gains
3. co-ops need to join into emerging business partnerships around sustainable development
4. there are new ways to give voice to people and the co-operative movement needs to be at the forefront of the new opportunities.
Some of the debates that echoed through the programme are ones many in the field would recognise. Given the speed of market change, are we, as co-operative businesses, agile enough and alive to innovation? Do we plant a bold flag by positioning ourselves as alternatives to shareholder companies? … or recognise instead that what fires us up doesn’t necessarily work in the wider world beyond our memberships, where people just need to know who we are and what we do well.
Alongside some outstanding rhetoric and inspiring examples of co-operative action, the outstanding set pieces related to direct business challenges – the Danish farmer cooperative that felt it could not operate in a dozen countries on the back of membership equity from one and so is exploring how to balance member control with minority external capital; the Australian enterprise-owned co-op, Capricorn, that has changed it’s strategy as traditional car repairs comes under threat and, once it decided to move, had to change CEO as the first step on that journey; the delegation from Cuba, trying to plan for a new role for autonomous co-operatives in a more liberalised economy.
One comment which captured some of this was a quotation cited from Georges Fauquet (1873-1953), who said that “[…] too often, we observe to which extent a social movement cease being a movement when it cuts the umbilical cord with its utopias, dreams or even illusions.”
Luckily, when we come together as a sector, as diverse as we are, our instinct remains to be both focused on business and yet still weavers of dreams.