Reinventing the Co-operative

This document has been made available in electronic format
     by the International Co-operative Alliance ICA
                     January 1996

        Reinventing the Co-operative: Enterprises
                 for the 21st Century

by Edgar Parnell, is published by the Plunkett Foundation, 23 Hanborough
Business ParkLong Hanborough, Oxford OX8 8LH, 255 pp, price 17.95 inc.
postage & packing (airmail - 2 extra), ISBN 0 85042 190 X.

Co-operators are 'obsessed' with their cherished Rochdale Principles and
the time has come to reinvent the co-operative if it is to survive into the
next millennium, - this claim by Edgar Parnell, Director of the
Oxford-based Plunkett Foundation, strikes at the heart of co-operative

In a new book, Reinventing the Co-operative: Enterprises for the 21st
Century launched at an official receptionduring the ICA Centennial
Conference in Manchester, Mr Parnell says 'Many people involved in
co-operatives find it as difficult to define a co-operative without
referring to the Rochdale Rules (or the so-called Co-operative Principles)
as most of us find it difficult to describe a spiral staircase without
reverting to the use of our hands.

Unfortunately, this obsession with 'principles' has brought an unnecessary
complexity to the understanding of the co-operative form of business and
has provided a diversion from the essential simplicity of the concept of
co-operation. This fact alone has probably been one of the greatest
barriers to the expansion of co-operative forms of enterprise in recent
time, as well as being at the root of many management and organisational

Deploring that in many cases the co-operative model of enterprise has
become 'frozen in time', he argues that it still offers untapped potential
to contribute significantly to human development but in the past has been
'hijacked' by those with a political agenda and exploited to their
political advantage or to further a particular cause.

He continues that because the co-operative model is absent from the
curricula of schools, colleges and universities, it has become a 'much
maligned and often neglected option' - yet because most of the world's
Governments have now abandoned both State and municipal forms of
enterprise, 'this leaves the co-operative as the only real alternative' to
investor-driven business.

'The re-invented co-operative can be expected to become the leading
institution in the new millennium - if the people involved in them are
ready to take up the challenge ........ the future must surely be in the
development of real co-operation which is based upon mutual benefit. This
will not come about because of some 'airy fairy' idealism but because it
makes good economic sense to direct all our energies towards achieving a
set of common objectives which can deliver a fair share of benefits to all
the parties involved.'

Looking to the future, Mr Parnell says that what co-operatives need are new
leaders who have the vision and commitment to reposition co-operation as a
credible alternative to investor-driven business structures. He says this
is especially important if co-operation is to appeal to the next generation
who are likely to demand that organisations are not only more responsive,
accountable and responsible to their customers but also display a much
greater concern for the environment and the conservation of the world's

Mr Parnell sees unemployment as  the greatest problem facing future
generations.  Co-operatives can play a considerable role in job creation
because they are not dependent on the whims of investors but rather
satisfying the mutual needs of their stakeholders.

In too many cases of privatisation the only new stakeholders to replace the
State or local Government have been investors. We should expect that if
more people become aware of the "co-operative option" then in future,
co-operatives run by different stakeholders will be involved in taking over
public enterprises.'

Pointing to the growth of co-operatives in sectors like healthcare,
financial services, travel and tourism, he says there are many other
examples where co-operation is a better alternative, particularly
monopolies in the privatised public utilities. 'The provision of
distribution services, such as electricity, gas, water or cable
connections, also wellbeing services such as health and care, if they are
not to be provided by the Government, then they are generally better
provided by a co-operative than an investor company', he concludes.

'As more people come to appreciate that they can "self-supply" essential
services then we should expect co-operatives to accelerate their rate of
involvement in these sectors.