Can business be popular?

While the economic forecasts for the UK, such as by the IMF last week, are becoming more rosy, there is a concern, echoed by Vince Cable in a lecture to the Royal Economic Society, that we are really kick starting the same economy that failed last time round, with significant structural vulnerabilities, around unbalanced trade, footloose capital, stretched consumer credit and propped-up property prices.

What is not on the agenda is what the UK needs – more humble, more practical and more self-reliant than waiting for the macro-economic cycle to turn – which is, as I see it, mass entrepreneurship.

One of the most unfortunate myths of today’s market models is that business is for the likes of others.

We recently published research by the distinguished commentator on entrepreneurship, Dr Rebecca Harding, titled ‘the collaborative entrepreneur‘. As the title suggests, what she found from an extensive, multi-country survey of entrepreneurs is that they are far from the heroic loners portrayed in the media. They are people who want to form teams, to work with others, to put something back when they can. In short, there are far more informal co-operative entrepreneurs than formal co-operative enterprises.

A rather wonderful model for this, for those on benefits, comes from Morocco, France, Belgium and Quebec. An activity co-operative is a launch pad for people who are budding entrepreneurs to make the transition from benefits to self-employment. It provides entrepreneurs with financial and legal cover during the trial business period. This gives them a safe legal status, an income guarantee as the business builds up as well as peer support. The worker co-operative offers the support of a group of people who share the same challenges and are willing to pool their skills and ideas. If successful, they pass through three phases:

1. They remain technically unemployed, but develop their business idea under the wing of the activity co-operative

2. If it is looking good, they become a ‘salaried entrepreneur’, with the security of a part-time employment contract

3. Finally, they become a self-sufficient business, sharing in the ownership and management of the co-operative.

The business sectors range from cookery and cleaning through to furniture restoration and jewellery making. In France, there are around 100 of these worker coops (or ‘scop‘ in France), with eight in Belgium and others in countries such as Morocco, Sweden and Quebec.

I had a first go at encouraging the UK to take up this model, which would involve a relatively simple but concrete set of reforms to the re-introduced New Enterprise Allowance.

The Coalition Government, in its early enthusiasm for open models of business, commissioned a review of policy on employee ownership by the distinguished lawyer, Graeme Nuttall. His review included the recommendation, coming from us, for the Department of Work and Pensions to look at this.

Well, as far a I can see, that pretty much killed it. There is little more that resembles an immoveable object than the UK’s benefits administration. People work together? In business? And if it is French in origin, forget it – we are not going to try and learn from that. The official report one year on from the Nuttall Review said late last year that the recommendation would lead to “information that will be distributed” – like holding back a flood with a leaflet.

This is only one of the many ideas, though, that could harness mass entrepreneurship. For almost every Government intervention on business, there will be a creative variant that uses social economy models to widen economic participation.

UK business should be popular, not in the sense of being above criticism, but in the sense that business is something that we do all feel can be for us.

Ten short provocations on social innovation

Here are ten short provocations on the theme of social innovation that I have pulled together from the Brazilian radical thinker, Roberto Unger, from a recent visit to the UK. Social innovation is the issue of our times – after all, what it is, is applied social change.

1. In the wake of the traditional economy, new forms of production are emerging that are characterised by permanent innovation.

2. The ‘path of least resistance’ is a hegemonic project in the richest part of the world, hostile to structural innovation.

3. The work of the social innovation movement is to resist and subvert the dictatorship of no alternatives.

4. The multitude of small-scale innovations, of little epiphanies, are down payments on larger transformative possibilities.

5. We can now develop regimes of co-operative competition with small and medium sized firms to spread social innovation.

6. We can now radically transform the character of education – to be analytical, not informative & to embrace co-operation.

7. How does social innovation achieve change? Through two strategies: ‘interpreted foreshadowings’ and ‘exemplary insurgence’.

8. It is the combination of tangible practicality with prophetic vision that most distinguishes the social innovation movement.

9. We aim not for a marginal increase of equality, but the achievement of a larger life for ordinary man and woman.

10. Ordinary men and women are not as ordinary as they seem to be: there is a vocation for a larger life in every human being.

Top 5 co-operative business books for 2014

Just as our wider world is seen, more than ever, through the lens of competition, the world of business and markets is in fact more aware than ever of the benefits of co-operation. Here are my top five books on co-operation and social enterprise for 2014:

out now

1. Redemption: the cooperation revolution, by Berny Dohrmann – why co-operative models of organisation and business innovation are taking off across the business world

2. Grow a Grocery: a guide to starting and growing a wholefood co-operative, Unicorn Grocery Worker Co-operative – an insight into one of the UK’s most inspiring worker co-ops… and how to get one of your own on your doorstep.

out soon in 2014

3. Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, Simon Sinek (January) – leadership in a mutual organisation is different to the corporate world of hierarchy, because ownership and therefore control are more dispersed. Sinek argues that great business leaders in fact foster that very culture of mutuality because it is the key to collaborative success.

4. A bigger prize: why competition isn’t everything and how we do better, Margaret Heffernan (February) – this is going to be one of the leading business books of 2014 in my view. UK-based business school academic and best-selling author of Blindsided, Margaret is turning her attention to the case for business co-operation.

out later in 2014

5. Tomorrow’s Bottom Line: The B Team Playbook for Market Gamechangers, John Elkington and Jochen Zeitz (September). The idea that business is about shared benefit is on the rise – where the most future-proofed enterprises are those that recognise the interplay of a triple bottom line. The B Team is a Richard Branson (et al) idea for future business, but yet fully to take shape – this book will fill it out.

I’d welcome your suggestions too for reading… and if you need a good, efficient, tax-paying place to buy these or any books online in 2014, why not try News from Nowhere, Liverpool’s celebrated radical – and co-operative – bookshop.

My 2013 blogging in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys, all open/ free software, prepared a 2013 annual report for my blog. Thank you!

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 10,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.