When business leads to co-operative development (1996)

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

     (Source: Review of International Co-operation, Vol.89,
      No.2/1996, p.7-17)

          When business leads to co-operative development:
       A study of educational processes in a co-operative firm

                        Gurli Jakobsen*


Presentation of problem
Intuitively we know that we learn from what we do, from our
experiences and the meaning we give to these experiences, and
not only from what we "learn in school". This paper focuses on
such informal and often implicit learning processes in
relation to co-operation in co-operatives. Although many
co-operative movements express the belief that `to become a
co-operator one has to do co-operation', and some
conceptualizations of co-operative education also include
non-planned educational activities (P. Watkins 1986), then
co-operative education is often understood as various forms of
planned activities.

The case to be presented here is a service co-operative of
associated farmers which operates in Argentina in the Buenos
Aires Province. The reported study has led to a further
analytical distinction within the category of informal
education. It can take place explicitly as well as implicitly.
This distinction helps to analyse the relationship between
educational processes and co-operative development. It raises
the question of what type of education results from the
implicit learning acquired through doing business in the firm,
and how does this relate to more intentional educational
efforts in favour of a co-operative development1.

Even though co-operation occurs in conventionally as well as
in co-operatively organized enterprises, this fact does not
imply that the problems are presented the same way and require
the same type of answers or meet the same resistances in the
two types of enterprises. The specific terms of ownership and
principles of organization from conventionally organized
enterprises condition the system of motivation and necessity
of information for the participants. A co-operative enterprise
in this context is understood as an association (or society)
of people/members that has organized its capital ownership as
well as its system of influence and of power regulation
according to the co-operative principles in order to carry out
their shared economic activity or business2. The central
argument of the paper claims that the way these principles are
interpreted and practised in the `daily life' of the
enterprise, i.e. through the actual enterprise culture and
leadership style, produces learning situations which may
strengthen or weaken the co-operative understanding on the
part of members and leadership.

Education and co-operation
Assuming that the enterprise wants to strengthen its position
economically and socially in a co-operative way, then co-
operative education basically has two purposes when viewed
from the perspective of the firm: that of socialization of
the members into understanding the logic and dynamics of the
existing organization as co-operative, and into understanding
their role as member; and secondly, in relation to change and
innovation in the firm, to equip the members with sufficient
tools to enable them to think out new solutions and new
inventions in accordance with the logic of the general
principles and value system of the co-operative, even in a
situation of crisis. 

Educational activities differ with regard to the degree of
formality involved. It ranges from the formal and non-formal
learning schemes on one end, whether inside the
institutionalized school systems or in the form of workshops,
seminars, or similar short-term activities, as is the case of
various forms of adult education, eventually tailored to the
needs of the enterprise. On the other end one finds the
informal education which is self or group directed, although
also intentional learning and situated in the firm or outside
(Adams 1987:43). This variation is reflected in the ways the
principle of co-operative education has been translated into
actions. They range from promotion of co-operatives in schools
to various educational efforts within the particular movement,
and to initiatives within higher education (Watkins 1986).  

This has been true of the Argentine co-operative movement,
which provides the empirical example presented in this paper.
Argentina is among the first countries to introduce a degree
in co-operative studies at the university level, a programme
of study which has been offered since the 1940s3. At the level
of primary schools several initiatives of co-operation
education has since long become implemented. The 1972
Argentine legislation on co-operatives required them to devote
5% of their economic result to co-operative education of
members and their community, either for internal initiatives
or collectively, through the corresponding federation. This
has led to interesting educational initiatives and
experiences, both locally and regionally.

While there is a rather general consensus across various
co-operative movements -as witnessed through interviews with
practitioners in various types of co-operative movements in
Argentina- concerning the areas of knowledge required,
differences of opinion appear when it comes to realization
(concrete content and form). Three fields of skills are
normally mentioned when characterizing co-operative education
in the enterprises. They are (1) understanding the doctrine
and philosophy of co-operative-type enterprises; (2) training
in the techniques of co-operation necessary for carrying out
tasks as a member of the co-operative; and (3) the technical
knowledge required for understanding the issues of the
economic and social aspects of the enterprise. Not every type
of co-operative, however, requires the same level of
information and participation from all members and workers in
order to function well. The particular economic activity, as
well as the general cultural context, condition the
educational requirements. 

Case study: a co-operative insurance company
The co-operative "La Dulce" has celebrated its 70 years of
existence. It was founded in 1922 by immigrants from various
European countries with the purpose of providing insurance to
farmers against the risk of weather damage to their crops4.

The area insured during a season oscillated from 180-220.000
ha of crop within a radius of 150-200 km and had a membership
of some 1200 farmers. It ranked nationally among the five
largest firms offering insurance against hail damage on crop
and was the dominant company in its district of operation. An
indication of its rather stable and successful economic
management can be seen from the flourishing community cultural
centre which has been provided by funds from the co-operative.
To this day its organizational set-up reflects a classical
conception of co-operative principles, a remarkable situation
given the statistically common tendency for economically
successful co-operatives to become less co-operative over

I was struck by the rather high level of co-operative
consciousness found in the leadership. Co-operative thinking
was incorporated into the management style, but there was an
absence of obvious co-operative education of members. To give
an example, new members were not receiving any particular
introduction to the logic of co-operative organization. The
only conscious educational efforts to be detected were:
training of members to carry out damage evaluation (tasador in
Spanish), and of having supplement board members participate
in the ordinary meetings for the explicit purpose of learning
how leadership functions in the co-operative. Despite this, it
seemed to function well, both co-operatively and economically.
Does that mean that education is of no importance? This was
not the conclusion drawn, but my attention became cantered on
the type of co-operative learning created by this style of
leadership and management. The hypothesis was that co-
operative and democratic learning in this co-operative somehow
happened through the co-operative insurance activities5.

There appeared to be a number of routines and procedures
of how to carry out the administration, management and
leadership which provided opportunities for dialogue and other
exchanges among leadership, members and employees. Examples of
such situations in this case were:

*    Evaluating crop damages was done by trained lay people.
     Members, not professionals, were doing this job as part
     of their membership. Through discussions between
     evaluators and the farmer about particular damages, this
     system provided a continuous adjustment of what would be
     considered fair compensation for this group of farmers,
     i.e. among members and leadership. It also strengthened
     confidence in peer group competence - an important aspect
     of co-operation. 

*    In case of a conflict about compensation, a new
     evaluation group would be set up; half could be people
     having the confidence of the farmer whose crop was
     damaged, and half appointed by the co-operative. This
     routine underlined equality among members and reliance on
     peer group capacity to handle conflicts - again an
     important aspect of co-operation.

*    Being an evaluator of damages gave those members an
     opportunity to gradually become more than averagely
     acquainted with the matters of the co-operative. In a
     type of co-operative which normally gives little
     opportunity for members to become informed or involved
     beyond the individual insurance business, a group of
     members were able to participate, ask questions and exert
     a certain control on management. Informed participation
     in sufficient number is another important aspect of co-

*    The insurance premium varied from year to year according
     to the size of the compensation for damages each year.
     This practice provided insight into the direct link
     between the premium and the total amount of claimed
     compensation, and an understanding of the link between
     surplus and compensation paid to the member that was

*    The member paid his premium after the harvest, at the
     same time as he received eventual compensation due. This
     procedure made administration simpler and cheaper while
     relying on the honesty of the members. Such an insurance
     contract routine presupposed (or favoured?) a sense of
     co-operative responsibility of the members.

*    The problem of payment due on premiums was a matter for
     the elected board, and not for the administration. The
     board members - farmers themselves - took charge of
     intervening in cases of non-paying members. They did not
     use hired agencies. One consequence of this was that
     leadership was well informed about the reasons and the
     changing economic conditions of the membership group.
     Another was that the insured client, the farmer, was not
     anonymous among his peers.

*    Only members who were insured during the year had a right
     to vote at the yearly general assembly. This is a quite
     orthodox adaptation of the co-operative principles of
     control and distribution to those who have economic
     transactions with the co-operative: to make not only
     sharing in the returns but also the right of influence
     dependent on having had transactions with the co-
     operative during the course of the year.

*    Procedures for members to propose new candidates for the
     board were rather uncomplicated: candidates could be
     nominated at the general assembly itself and be submitted
     to secret ballot together with those proposed by the
     leadership. This practice favoured participation, in
     contrast to that of other established co-operatives in
     the region, which normally required candidates to have
     been pre-announced and included on a list printed

*    New members could be accepted after recommendation by two
     members. The co-operative only traded with members.
     Together with the yearly balance, a membership list was
     published with each member's insurance activity, the
     amount of damage compensation paid and for which field.
     These practices ensured that the membership group was not
     anonymous, and made the transactions of the co-operative
     transparent to the members. These seem to be important
     conditions for social contact, information, and control
     of co-operative matters. 

*    Expulsion of members for not complying economically or
     socially did occur, but it was a rare event. The
     intervening body was the elected board members and not
     the administration. 

The above mentioned examples of business routines were
repeated one or more times within an insurance cycle. They all
implied communication among members, and between members and
board. They dealt with transactions, opinions, and attitude
formation and there are examples which related to the
democratic structure (the association) as well as to purely
business activities. The result of this learning, which
involved board members as well as ordinary members, I call
implicit education. Through trade, work or other normal
business-relevant contact with the enterprise the member gains
a series of experiences that gradually provide insight into
the specific relations in the co-operative and the rationale
behind this specificity, and gains an understanding of the
consequences of being a member of this particular co
operative, with regard to rights and duties and expression of
common interests. Moreover the process of being informed of
the needs of the members and thus of foreseeing future changes
also occur partially "along the way". The hypothesis is that
the routines may provide opportunities for co-operative
learning, in so far as they provide situations of dialogue
concerning co-operative values, principles and organization.
They become co-operative learning situations, in the sense
that they deal with the co-operative specificity not only at
the level of the "how" but also of the "why" of the co-

A Model of Implicit Education assuming that such implicit
educational processes exist and matter, it becomes a
research challenge to incorporate them as part of the object
of study, to "catch eye" of these processes. 

For a purely analytical purpose a model of a co-operative was
set up. The members of a co-operative relate to their
enterprise in two ways: as a co-owner, and as a user. This is
reflected in Figure 1 as [a] and [b] respectively. In a
similar way the co-operative enterprise is depicted as a dual
organization with an associative [A] and a business [B] part.
Within each of the four logical combinations of membership and
co-operative, one can identify processes of structuring
authority and communication, as appear from the examples in
figure 1. It does not claim to cover all forms of
communication in the enterprise. It presents generalized
examples which recur regularly at various intervals of time.
The content of these examples will by influenced by the type
of co-operative and the corporate culture of the co-operative
in question. In a service co-operative like the insurance
company, the business side [B] comprises all the relations
handling the buying and selling of a service to the members.
The members in this case are co-owner/customers, while these
relations in a worker co-operative correspond to the work and
management relations that exist among the members of the
co-operative, since in this type of co-operative the members
are co-owner/workers. By identifying the routines and
procedures in a concrete case along the lines indicated in
Figure 1, and describing the cultural aspects of these
situations, their uses, norms and practices, each co-operative
will show a distinct profile, a distinct enterprise culture
with different co-operative learning potential.

Figure 1

               The co-operative enterprise

Enterprise               A                   B
Membership          Association    Business organization
                         aA                  aB

               - General assembly   - Co-owner's participation
               - Election of          in governance
                 leadership           and management
               - Formulation of      - Voluntary work as co-
                 co-owner's interest   owners
 Co-owner      - Information & edu-  - Commissions and work 
                 cation of members as
                 goal setters of the
               - General assembly

                         bA                  bB

               - Formulation of user  -  Business/work
                 interests               relations
                                         between user and
    b          - commissions and work -  Economic relations
  User           groups related to       between user & co-op
                 user's interests.
               - Social activities as 
                 a user.
               - Information and educa-
                 tion about user interests.


Applying the model to the Case Study
When describing the different internal relations and
activities in a concrete co-operative they can be classified
as reflecting one or more of these four logical combinations
shown in figure 1. The insurance o-operative showed a profile
of communication for all four member-co-operative
combinations. As co-owners, the membership group related to
the co-operative at the level of association as well as at the
level of business organization. This also occurred in their
capacity as farmers in need of insurance, i.e. as
members/customers. As can be noted from the presentation of
the case, the practices of the insurance business itself
provided opportunities for adjusting opinions within the
membership group and in the leadership about what was fair
indemnization. An example of this is the practice concerning
evaluation of damages, which provides ample opportunity for
members, both as clients and as co-owners, to gain
understanding of the co-operative economic inter-connections.
Another example of a recurrent learning situation is payment
of the premium. One would typically expect this to a purely
economic relation in an insurance company. In this case, the
administration of payment of premiums is organized in such a
way that it relates to members in their capacity as co-owners.
This reliance on the social responsibility of those who insure
is, moreover, an example of an economic transaction which
takes advantage of the associative side of the co-operative in
order to lower administrative costs. 

The study revealed a rather co-operative leadership style
where the business side of the co-operative relied strongly on
the particular structure of the co-operative for its economic
success, i.e. the associative aspects. This result is contrary
to what is normally assumed to happen to the role of
membership over time in a process of economic success, - and
contrary to many empirical cases as well. A contrasting
example would be a co-operative with a leadership style
approaching that of a stockholder company. It will probably
emphasize the customer business relations [bB] in a technical
economical way. The type of management that emerges within
such a leadership style presupposes little or no participation
on the part of the elected board in the daily running of the
business [aB], and a general assembly of the membership group
more like that of stockholders with an exclusive concentration
on the economic output [aA].

Philosophy of Leadership
It would be wrong to claim for the presented case that this
particular style of leadership just happened. It required a
conscious process, where co-operative creativity was applied
to construct business routines which take advantage of the co-
operative set-up to make the business side of the co-operative
more efficient. These routines are different from those of
'normal' insurance companies. They presuppose a deep
understanding of the co-operative specificity, and a will to
make it work. In this concrete case, this seem to have been
located with the by now retired director of the co-operative;
he worked out the essentials of the practical solutions which
have made it possible for co-operative learning and business
praxis to go hand-in-hand under present market conditions.
Various active members of the agricultural co-operatives in
the area referred to this person as one of their teachers. 

The other was a farmer with a long history as a leader of
agricultural co-operatives. Both had a style of leadership
which combined the ability to lead in action with the ability
to communicate about the principles of action, and both were
imbued with a sense of community. Interestingly enough, when
asked about the background of this particular organizational
set-up, he emphasized that he always looked for economically
efficient solutions. He did not see a contradiction between a
co-operative system and economic efficiency.

The leadership in office at the time of the study was very
conscious about leading the co-operative in a classical,
orthodox way. The objective of the co-operative, as defined by
the leadership, was to provide a satisfactory insurance
service to the members. This meant good compensation in case
of damage, low premiums and reliable calculations of the
consequences of weather changes in order to avoid a sudden
decapitalization of the co-operative. Growth was perceived as
something to be dealt with as more members joined the co-
operative; it was considered to be positive, but not a goal in
itself. The goal seemed rather to be a balanced economic
system of service. Business-wise, the result was that the co-
operative offered cheaper services, almost by half, than the
other regional competing companies, including other co-
operatives. As an insurance expert remarked when reading the
case, "I see they have a perfect control on the factor of

Cultural environment
The duration of this style of management of the co-operative
is naturally enough not exclusively due to a combination of
implicit learning of members, the attitudes of leadership, and
the economic results. The environment, especially the style of
life - the social culture - of the farmers of the region was
an important conditioning factor of management praxis. There
must be enough members willing to devote time and energy to
the organization to such a degree that they will engage on a
voluntary basis in damage evaluation and the other obligations
of management that members carried out in this co-operative.
The educational effect of a business style that proved
sufficiently efficient for the co-operative's needs
contributed to such engagement. Not all the agricultural
co-operatives within the same region could show a similar
engagement however. The analysed case functioned in cultural
surroundings in which participation in a farmer co-operative
would not normally imply any radical break with the life
experiences of the farmers/members outside the co-operative.
As farm-owners or tenants, they are used to running an
enterprise. Moreover, the civic life of small towns in
Argentina is characterized by quite a number of membership
associations that provide social services and utilities to the
area and are managed by the citizens themselves. For other
types of co-operatives there might be a more conflicting
relation between the surrounding social and cultural norms and
those appropriate for a co-operatively functioning enterprise,
as is the case of workers' co-operatives formed by
ex-employees, as is happening these years in Argentina
(Jakobsen 1995:128-30).

Co-operative education is often addressed in questions like,
`how can efficient co-operative education be provided to
members and leaders', or 'how can co-operative development be
favoured through co-operative education'. In other words,
questions of the type that treat co-operative education as the
independent variable, and its effects on the co-operative
organization and on its members as the dependent variable.
Studying this case, I was brought to 'turn the question upside
down' and to focus on the educational effects for the members
and their leadership of the actual associative, management,
and business practices in the co-operative enterprise. It has
brought attention to what can be called implicit education in
organizational efficiency and `raison d' etre', in this case
it is about the `why' and `how' of a co-operative
organizational set-up. Hence the title of the paper "When
business leads to co-operative education".

The model and concepts presented here are intended as
guidelines for ongoing research. Such a model of learning has
consequences, however, for the view of organizational life. It
raises questions about the existence of space for possible
`sites of reflections' by the members of an organization. Do
they occur at the individual lev}l or is there a shared
process? Are they legitimate activities or not? Are they time
spaces which are paid for, or are they leisure activities? The
recurrent situations in the life of a co-operative enterprise
can be described as structural characteristics of the
enterprise which may be quite formalized. But they are also
practices of the particular co-operative which occur within
the context of these structural characteristics.

Seen from the outside, many co-operatives show similar
structural characteristics at first sight, not least because
of their very basis in co-operative principles; but they may
show important divergences and specifics when it comes to the
role played by this structure in the practices of the members
of the co-operative.

These specific characteristics may provide very different
opportunities for co-operative learning. Business routines,
understood as the practice of the enterprise, particularly the
practice of leadership in management and governing bodies,
intervene as the interpretive factor. One can say that
structure sets the stage and may also determine who the
interacting partners are; but without analysing the actual
business culture, this will not be very informative on the
educational outcome.

The implication of this apply to negative as well as to
positive examples of co-operative development. It indicates
that attention to the effect of such processes can give clues
to why processes of co-operative development or degeneration
persist in certain co-operatives in spite of conscious efforts
of education and training. This study is not an argument for
not doing planned educational activities of more or lesser
degrees of formality. It does indicate, however, one possible
answer to why such education may prove inefficient. The
reasons for this may not entirely be of a pedagogical kind, it
may relate to the non-intended educational effects of the
daily learning.


1.  The paper draws on experiences from a larger study which
includes data from other countries as well (Jacobsen 1993).
The ideas of this article have been further elaborated in a
paper presented at the ICA Co-operative Research Forum in
Manchester, Sept 1995, where an attempt is made to incorporate
daily living mechanisms, together with concepts of
co-operative enterprise culture and development, into a
learning model, Published in Journal of Rural Co-operation,
vol. XXIII, no.2, 1995: 119-150.

2.   I follow the theoretical tradition expressed in various
ways by Desroches 1976, Vienney 1980, Laflamme 1981, Larranaga
1981, Parnell 1992, Ellerman 1992.

3.   Several universities in Argentina have offered studies
leading to a degree as technician or graduate in
co-operativism (Bahia Blanca, La Plata, Rosario, Cordoba). The
candidates have mostly found employment within the
agricultural or financial co-operative movement. Spain,
France, Canada, and USA are other more recent examples.

4.   Data were gathered during field work in Argentina from
1985-1986. A visit in 1991 showed that the general lines of
leadership have continued, uninterrupted by the effects of
economic difficulties of hyper inflation, etc. The case is
analysed in Jakobsen (1989a;1989b).

5.  A parallel to this way of reasoning has been formulated in
the context of learning in the class-room where it is called
the hidden curriculum by Philip W. Jackson (Borg and Bauer,

6.  At the time of my revisit to the co-operative in 1991,
plans for the design of computer programmes to fit their style
of management were well on their way to be implemented. The
co-operative had constructed time series of weather
conditions, which were being computerized and used for risk

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* Ms. Jacobsen is Assistant Professor at the Department for
Intercultural Communication and Management at the Copenhagen
Business School in Denmark.