The future of business advice may just be peer to peer…the story of our pilot

Nowhere is the power of business to achieve change more emblematic or more hopeful than the sunrise of the community energy sector across the UK. It has been an extraordinary journey to see new technologies for a clean future matched by new techniques for community organising, offering a very human scale domestic success story.

Ever since the first renewable energy co-operative, Baywind, started, the sector has been an exemplar for bootstrap learning and peer support. The backing of Esmee Fairbairn and the partnership we have had with Locality and the UK Government for our Community Shares Unit, focusing on local equity raising, has allowed us to experiment in how to build on this, with a practical project backing the energy and potential of peer support.

Every success story has many people that can claim to have had a share. But the practitioners are the ones that know how narrow the difference is between success and failure, and own the insights and experience that make the difference. So much advice and guidance in social enterprise and wider business settings tends to be provided by intermediaries without that hands-on experience – they can add value, but what practitioners can add is often invaluable. Or tends to offer pages on a website, when what is needed, at the early stage, is conversations with people.

Community energy comes in many different legal and organisational forms, but there is a natural co-operation across them all.  Community energy pioneers and practitioners are often the most generous of people with their time and expertise. But again, it is all too common for this to be taken for granted. They are typically running enterprises that need their focus. Again, across the wider social enterprise and business sector, there is often an assumption that such people will volunteer to be mentors, to ‘give back’ when they have already given so much.

What is unusual about this project is that we have tried a methodology for business development that, as an alternative to the costs of traditional sources of business support, creates a modest but enabling reward structure for practitioners to be able to support those who are following them.

The idea for the work came from conversations with our members, in work completed by Becky and Jenny Willis who have made a huge contribution to our work at Co-operatives UK over time, to support the fledgling community energy sector.

Of course, some of the barriers that practitioners have faced are better simply removed, rather than advised on. Community energy is influenced by a complex policy and regulatory environment and there are lessons, and recommendations, for national policy that we draw from our work in this project that are set out in our Policy Report. 

The challenge of creating a sustainable economy is sometimes characterised as about learning to adapt to the future we face. The challenge of scaling community energy, across all the relevant renewable technologies, is also about learning. How do we accelerate learning, in order to accelerate practice? One answer which can now be added into the mix is energy mentoring.

We would be keen and interested to share our learning, which we set out at summary level in a second Impact Report, and to engage with partners and in new partnerships to make the most of co-operation and learning for community energy and indeed for wider social and economic innovation

The challenge of creating a sustainable economy is sometimes characterised as about learning to adapt to the future we face. The challenge of scaling community energy, across all the relevant renewable technologies, is also about learning. How do we accelerate learning, in order to accelerate practice? One answer which can now be added into the mix is peer to peer mentoring.

Could the future for business advice be a co-operative one, based on a far greater degree of peer to peer mentoring?

We have put together Our Impact Report on what we have learned through the project. We would be keen and interested to share ideas on the approach and to engage with partners and in new partnerships to make the most of peer to peer models of advice, both for community energy and indeed for wider social and economic innovation.

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3 thoughts on “The future of business advice may just be peer to peer…the story of our pilot

  1. Across Greece, at the moment, numerous co-operative and mutual organisations have sprung up spontaneously to help deal with the humanitarian crisis that is being inflicted on the country by the EU and ECB. That is particularly acute in relation to healthcare, because Greece as a poor country, does not have a socialised healthcare system, and many individuals after five years of austerity have no means to pay for private health insurance. This seems a instance where not only SHOULD co-operative organisations in the UK and across Europe be coming to the assistance of these co-operative organisations, and the citizens of Greece in general, but an opportunity once more, as in 2008, for co-operatives to demonstrate the way they can provide a superior form of Europe than one driven by profit and the needs of capital.

    I would be interested to know what your organisation is and can do in promoting such assistance, and building co-operative organisation across Europe, via for example, the International Co-operative Alliance.

    • I know. We have been active in trying to support the cooperative sector in Greece since the start of austerity, sponsoring work by Cooperatives Europe (ICA Region) which has been working to help the Greek Government create a better framework for these emerging coops. One of our members, Unicorn Grocery, is hosting one of the most active of the new Greek co-operative leaders over the Summer, for cross-learning.

      • Ed,

        Thanks for your reply. But, don’t you think that the ICA and other Co-operative and mutualist organisations across Europe should be playing a much larger direct role in providing practical assistance.

        For example, one of the things I have been writing about on my blog for months, is that a way around the problem of a liquidity/credit crunch is the simple matter of people paying by debit/credit card, and other electronic means, such as direct transfers via tele or Internet banking. I’ve been surprised at the extent to which this does not exist in Greece, comapred to parts of Africa, where they have skipped a stage and are going straight to mobile payment methods.

        Co-operative banks across Europe could help by providing such assistance in establishing such systems – let alone, even direct transfers of Euros, in return for collateral, or just as loans. But, practically, there are things like the establishment of credit unions in communities, so that payments could be made on some kind of collective basis, by the CU.

        Another problem that always arises in a credit crunch is that suppliers want payment in cash, rather than by other forms of payment, which thereby leads to cash hoarding exacerbating the crisis. It would be useful for co-operative organisations across Europe to assist Greek co-ops to avoid the temptation to demand payment in cash, which thereby reduces the need for consumers to also then need cash.

        But, we have huge retail co-ops across Europe that could be providing humanitarian aid. In the 1930’s, the Co-op in South Wales and other badly affected areas, went against their principles of discouraging credit, and allowed their members to pay only when they got paid, and often extended additional credit to that. They did a similar thing during the General Strike. They befitted by having created more loyal customers.

        It would be useful to try to create more international co-operative enterprises, rather like multinational companies. As these could channel liquidity more easily, and so on.

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