THE INTERNET AND CO-OPERATIVES
Nitra, Slovakia - 4 June 1998
Bruce Thordarson, Director-General, ICA
THE INTERNET AND CO-OPERATIVES
I would like to begin by congratulating the leaders of the Slovakian co-operative movement for their initiative in organising this forward-looking conference involving so many co-operative representatives.. And when one thinks of key future issues, it is hard to imagine one which is more full of potential than the Internet.
It was only a few years ago that the ICA, realising the importance of electronic communications for the future, began its own activities in this area. I can recall that, in a speech prepared in 1995, I said something to the effect that, "We all can have different ideas about how dominant the role of electronic networking will become in the years ahead. Whether or not the phenomenal growth rates of Internet connections of recent years will continue remains to be seen. But there can be little doubt that What an understatement that was! It is now estimated that, by the year 2000, as many as 300 million individuals will be connected to Internet, compared to 4.5 million in 1991, and that electronic commerce will have risen to US $300 billion from virtually zero at the beginning of the decade. Somebody like me, who a few years ago only used the computer for word-processing, now turns to it first when I am looking for information of relevance to my work. More and more people also use it to do their shopping Before we start to think about the implications of this technology for co-operatives, it might be useful to identify some of its key characteristics.
* First of all, nobody owns the Internet. It is a bottom-up technology available to anyone with the necessary equipment, and able to be shaped by the people who use it.
* Second, it is a network-as the name of the World Wide Web perfectly describes-which is designed to facilitate the exchange of information.
* Third, it is interactive. As people learn more and more about the technology, it is possible to create small groups who are interested in a common topic, and who want to discuss the implications with their colleagues, most of whom they have probably never met in person.
* Fourth, it is truly global. Information can flow, immediately and accurately, without regard for distance and jurisdiction. And it is cheap as well.
When you compare this with the needs facing the co-operative movement, the synergies are obvious:
* The fact that co-operatives are a locally-oriented movement, different from country to country, has made it very difficult for public opinion and governmental authorities to understand their distinctive nature.
* The fact that they are so diverse, and so geographically distant, has traditionally made it difficult for co-operatives to share information and to undertake joint activities.
* And the fact that they are so disunited is a terrible handicap to co-operatives in the current economic environment, which is based on larger and larger structures, free markets, greater competiton, and international trade.
Before turning to some of the ways in which co-operative organisations are currently using the Internet, I would like to describe some of the applications which the ICA itself has already identified.
*The first and most important need for a representative organisation like ICA-and, indeed, for many of our members--is to spread information about the co-operative movement-not only to members but also to the general public, academics, students, journalists, governments, and so on. For this there can be no better source than the ICA Web Site, which provides information about co-operative principles, structures, people, current events, upcoming meetings, etc.
*The second role which the Internet plays for us is to provide instant and up-to-date information about new developments. Instead of waiting for a press release, or a copy of the ICA President's latest speech, or even the latest revision to the ICA Rules, interested parties can access this information immediately.
*For research the Internet is also a valuable tool. Every once and a while I have to refer to the latest UN Resolution in support of co-operatives-or maybe to find for a member organisation the Resolution which was passed by the General Assembly in 1992. Instead of going to the files, where the relevant papers might or might not still exist, these key documents are all available at the click of a mouse-and can even be sent to the member who requested it at the click of a mouse..
*What is also useful about the Internet is the links it provides with other like-minded groups-the concept of network that I mentioned before. When you visit the ICA Web Site you can see references to such useful sources of co-operative information as COPAC (The Committee for the Promotion and Advancement of Co-operatives), the University of Wisconsin Centre for Co-operatives, the ICA's Research Register, the Society for Co-operative Studies in the U.K., and many more-including direct links with all the ICA member organisations which have their own web sites.
*Finally, there are more and more new project ideas being developed through the Internet. To give you an idea of four which are currently being developed: the ICA has established a Working Group Committee on Trade and Communications Network Technology, which will identify and share new technological developments of interest to co-operatives in their business activities. The ICA has also created a web site for a Virtual Community for Co-operative Education, designed to pool information about co-operative How, then, are co-operative organisations themselves using the Internet? Like the ICA, many are using it primarily for rapid and efficient information exchange. But increasingly, they are also using it for business.
The leaders in this area, both co-operative and non-co-operative, are the financial institutions. Most of the large co-operative banks now offer members the opportunity to do their banking transactions at home, in front of their computers. Increasingly, consumer co-operatives are joining other retailers in enabling customers to purchase goods over the Internet. And agricultural co-operatives enable their members to purchase fertilizers and other inputs in the same way. So far these transactions are on There is also a third approach developing, one which combines business and information. Here the ICA Specialised Organisation for Insurance, the International Co-operative and Mutual Insurance Federation, offers some useful ideas. They have developed a programme called "Shared Intelligence", based on the concept that, if organisations are to have reliable information on which to base business strategies, they should be able to learn from the experiences of others, both inside and outside the co-operativr In conclusion, therefore, one can say that co-operatives have every reason to regard the Internet as a tool which is well-adapted to their particular needs. It strengthens communication among decentralised groups, supports the work of networks, and facilitates dialogue. Above all, perhaps, it is the preferred tool of today's young people and tomorrow's co-operative members. This fact alone makes it highly relevant for the development of future business strategies.