The Information Super-highway Opportunities for Co-operatives

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This document has been made available in electronic format 
by the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA)
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26 October, 1995

THE INFORMATION SUPER-HIGHWAY
OPPORTUNITIES FOR CO-OPERATIVES


Introduction

This article will concentrate on how the electronic 
network can help co-operatives around the world deal with 
some of their major problems, and to explain a little bit 
about what is happening today, especially at the global 
level.

The World-Wide Co-operative Network

Anyone who has had much association with co-operatives 
knows that they have one major strength--their 
decentralised structure--as well as one major weakness--
their decentralised structure.  Much of the history of co-
operative development around the world has centred on the 
quest to maximise the strengths of this unique 
characteristic, while minimising its weaknesses.  

Nowhere is this weakness more apparent than in the field 
of information.  Even among otherwise well-informed 
opinion-makers, politicians, journalists, and so on, the 
lack of understanding about the co-operative form of 
enterprise is almost frightening.  In business schools, 
learned journals, and economic text-books, there is an 
equal dearth of solid information about co-operative 
values, principles, and operating practices.  In the mass 
media, how often does one hear about co-operatives other 
than when one has gone bankrupt--as if this does not 
happen to partnerships, joint stock companies, and other 
forms of investor-owned business every day.

This information gap is even more striking when one 
compares it with the true picture of co-operative business 
today.  At the global level, more than 700 million people 
are members of co-operatives which are affiliated with the 
International Co-operative Alliance--and to this must be 
added many million members of informal, unstructured, or 
unaffiliated organisations.  Co-operatives are market 
leaders in agriculture and personal finance in many 
countries--Canada, the United States, France --and of 
course Japan.  Around the world they occupy important 
market shares in five major sectors: consumer retailing, 
agricultural production and processing, banking and 
insurance, worker-owned production, and service provision.

The Challenges for Co-operatives

As co-operatives look ahead to the next century, this gap 
between reality and public perception must be one of their 
major concerns and challenges.   How to better inform 
decision-makers, media, researchers--and above all, young 
people--about the true nature and strength of co-operative 
enterprise?




How the Information Super-Highway can Help

At ICA we are convinced that one of the most promising 
directions for the future is the information super-
highway.  On the one hand, it builds upon a traditional 
co-operative strength: a non-hierarchical, bottom-up 
structure.  On the other, it helps to compensate for a 
major co-operative weakness: its decentralised, 
diversified structure, which makes information-collection 
and information-distribution both expensive and difficult.

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 the 
electronic network will be a growing, and highly 
significant source of information in the future.  Co-
operatives will ignore it at their peril.

The ICA's Electronic Networking Project

The ICA's head office in Geneva began researching 
electronic networking possibilities some 18 months ago, 
and implemented a strategy based on this research in April 
1994.  It was based on two elements: internal 
communications and external information.

The first challenge, still far from being realised, is to 
make full use of the communications possibilities of the 
Internet within the ICA family.  We define this family to 
include our Head office, four Regional Offices, a couple 
of Project Offices, 14 Specialised Organisations and 
Committees in different parts of the world, development 
partners, and--of course--our more than 200 member 
organisations.  

Surprisingly enough, we have found that our small office 
is ahead of almost all of them in thinking about the 
potential for using e-mail, listservers, bulletin boards, 
and conferences in order to improve the efficiency and to 
lower the costs of communications.  One of the highlights 
of the ICA's Centennial Congress, held in Manchester in 
September, was the hands-on presentations organised by our 
Communications staff, in collaboration with the host 
organisations, to show delegates exactly what could be 
accomplished.  

One area about which we are quite concerned is to ensure 
that this new information technology does not broaden the 
disparity between developing countries and the rest of the 
world.  We have therefore gone to considerable efforts to 
ensure that our Regional Offices in India, Tanzania, Cte 
d'Ivoire, and Costa Rica can access and contribute to our 
on-line activities.  







We have also developed a strategy which is backwards 
compatible to ensure that ICA members in countries which 
do not have access to high-bandwidth Internet lines can 
contribute to and benefit from the project.  ICA has also 
become a founding member of the first European chapter of 
the Internet Society, and will take part in its special 
working group on development, which is designed to 
facilitate the transfer of technology to the developing 
world.

The second part of the programme is designed to put co-
operative information into the Internet, free of charge, 
in order to improve understanding about co-operatives. 

ICA began establishing the co-op presence on the InterNet 
in four stages in collaboration with the University of 
Wisconsin:  input of co-operative materials into existing 
discussion groups; setting up a Listserver where 
information and messages can be posted on certain topics; 
establishment of a Gopher; and creation of World Wide Web 
pages--probably the best way to structure information in a 
useable manner. All of the above objectives have now been 
achieved but much work needs to be done on building up 
these information tools and and promoting them to our 
members and the world at large.

The biggest step in this direction has been to set up an 
electronic information bank on co-operatives in 
collaboration with the University of Wisconsin's Center 
for Co-operatives.  This is admittedly an ambitious, time-
consuming, and expensive undertaking, but the effort seems 
to us to be fully warranted in light of the huge problems 
which misunderstanding and lack of information cause to 
co-operatives around the world.  And what better tool can 
there be to reach the millions of young decision-makers of 
the future--an often-neglected target in co-operative 
activities and programmes.

Implications for Co-operatives

Co-ops usually want to know about the potential of the 
Internet for promoting trade and other forms of commercial 
activity.  On the one hand, one can assume that any 
technique which facilitates improved communications is 
bound to be good for business--one need only think of what 
doing business was like in the days before the fax 
machine.  On the other hand, although the Internet is a 
global phenomenon, the bulk of cybertrade has remained 
within national borders. Problems of security of 
information and the lack of global agreements regarding 
international payments, liability and taxation have not 
yet been resolved, even though experts are working to 
resolve these problems and to guarantee reliability of 
service (i.e. that Web sites etc.can be accessed around 
the clock) which is not yet possible.

One of the greatest advantages of the electronic network 
will be to reduce distances.  When one thinks that we in 
Geneva could send a message as quickly, and as cheaply, to 
a co-operative in Japan as we could to one in Switzerland-
-not to mention the possibilities of multi-media 
communications--one can imagine that the distances which 
separate continents are going to seem much shorter in the 
future.


Future Directions

Coming back to the strengths and weaknesses of co-
operatives--the biggest challenge in this area, as in 
others, will be to ensure that co-operative participation 
in the electronic network is organised in a coherent, 
compatible, mutually-beneficial manner.  In other words, 
to ensure that each national movement, or even sector, 
does not develop programmes and approaches which are 
incompatible or even competitive.

Standardisation and information-sharing are techniques 
which support compatibility.  Co-operatives should 
certainly be encouraged to start their own on-line data 
banks, gophers, or web pages, but it would be good if the 
global programme, being coordinated by ICA, could at least 
be informed when something is started.  This would enable 
us to arrive at a mutually-beneficial agreement to allow a 
gateway from a new gopher site to the ICA gopher, and 
vice-versa.

For those of you with a special interest in this area, we 
would be pleased to make available copies of the ICA 
Gopher Plan so that you can see the various directories 
that are now being developed--by country, by sector, by 
topic, and so on.  With some common effort and 
information-sharing, the new electronic technology could 
help co-operatives to overcome one of their major 
traditional weaknesses, and to continue their progress 
towards meeting more and more member needs in the future.


Bruce Thordarson, Director-General
International Co-operative Alliance



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ICA/UWCC Gopher can be accessed 
at:gopher://wiscinfo.wisc.edu:70/11/.info-source/.coop

ICA Web Home Page: http://www.co-op.co.uk/ICA/

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