This document has been made available in electronic format by the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA)
Project Proposal on Communications and Trade (1997)

June, 1997
(Source: ICA Review, Vol. 90 No. 3, 1997, pp. 63-66)

Project Proposal on Communications and Trade
by Byron Henderson*

This is a proposal for the creation of a new working group within the communications committee of the ICA. The working group would be referred to as the Working Group on Trade and Communications Network Technology.

The purpose of the Working Group will be to receive information on developments in the area of Trade and Communications Networks, advise in the creation of these networks, inform the co-operative community of advances and support the integration of such networks into co-operatives.

The emergence of the Internet, and particularly the World Wide Web, in the last four years has brought a rapid reassessment of the expectations and requirements of international business organizations for business communications in the very near future. No less important has been the related growth of open world markets, placing an emphasis on international trade in the business plans of all substantial trading organizations - even those whose focus has been national to date.

Current assessments indicate that within three years over one million companies and 100 million consumers will be connected to the Internet. Annual revenues from retail transactions will exceed $50 billion and the volume of total business transactions conducted via the Internet will equal 25%.

Notwithstanding the expectations that lie behind these forecasts, the Internet software  which will allow them to come to fruition does not yet exist! How can we confidently predict high volumes of use in such a situation? The answer is that no single nation or corporation owns the Internet or can monopolize its use. Therefore those who see the need can be expected to produce the necessary Internet tools and fulfil the forecasts. The Internet is the product of the work of the individuals and organizations who cooperate to build it. By extension, the Internet and its tools will be first available and best used by those who build the tools that suit their organization and business. The tools are being built right now by the organizations which expect to use them, and need them, in the next three years.

These observations are not lost on the world business community. Among the more visible indicators of this general interest has been the creation, in 1994,  of CommerceNet, an industry consortium comprised of over 200 companies and organizations world wide. Their membership includes companies such as Bank of America, Xerox, Hewlett Packard, IBM, Sun, McDonnell Douglas, Digital Equipment, and research groups such as the Center for Information & Technology at UC Berkeley.

These companies and organizations have come together for one reason. They are the largest and most influential business organizations in the world, but the international, electronic marketplace cannot be built by even the largest one alone and requires the consensus of all for its use to be effective. Therefore, these companies are collaborating on a global network.

Their efforts are taking place in many ways and in many locations, but the network that results will span:
• millions of consumers, companies and value added services;
• a global business community with conducive legal and regulatory environments and standard business practices;
• software for financial services, health care, manufacturing, retailing and all key market segments; and
• a common technology platform for security, payment, directories, electronic data interchange, collaboration and other services as yet unknown.

While couched in terms of business development, what is at stake is the building of these network tools that will allow the flow of business and communication to proceed within a global environment orchestrated by those participating in it.

Both trade and communication are now linked at a level of span and depth never before seen.

The world of co-operative organizations has an equal stake in the building of the global network. But they must participate themselves. These networks are not being built by governments. They are not being built by corporations to suit non-corporations.  They are being built by the users who need them. Co-operatives will be able to adopt much of what emerges in the general business world, but major areas of database development, financial systems, multi-organization communication, and tools to assist co-operatives in developing nations, will not be directly available.

Role of the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives
Believing that co-operatives must be active developers of network tools suited to their needs, the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada has been actively exploring and building networks for the last four years. That work led to the creation of a new project in 1996 to explore a broad collaborative environment incorporating tools for communication, data interchange, modelling and research. This project was funded as a pilot by the University of Saskatchewan and was the concept of the Centre’s Director of Communications, Byron Henderson. Due to the foresight of the Centre’s Director, Murray Fulton, that work has come to the attention of Apple Computers of California who have expressed an interest in it as an aspect of the more general collaborative systems development in which they are engaged.  Byron has now joined the Apple Advanced Technology Lab as a visiting researcher for a number of months to carry on research on both the Apple software and on the Centre’s own project.

The Centre’s project has as its ultimate aim the creation of a pilot software platform for trade and collaboration among co-operatives.

Initial meetings with the researchers at the Apple Advanced Technology Lab indicate that they are extremely interested in the co-operative community world-wide. Indeed, many of their current projects promise to provide support for the kinds of communication tools needed by co-operators.

In addition, Byron is a principal advisor to a new co-operative called the Co-operative World Trade Centre (CWTC), based in North America.  This co-operative has been organized to study and to implement an electronic collaborative trade network. This is a group much like the CommerceNet, with the difference that it is designed solely for the support of co-operative organizations.

The prospect of a long-term collaboration between the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives and the Apple Advanced Technology Lab and a connection with the CWTC, provides the unique opportunity to gain an “open window” on new software developments,  to advance a co-operative technology concept with the assistance of a major corporate research lab, to provide an opportunity for co-operative organizations to influence the shape of software development,  and to provide an early opportunity for co-operative organizations to test and introduce collaborative trade software.

The Activities of the Working Group
The Working Group on Trade and Communications Networks should, ideally, proceed through three major phases:

The First Phase—In the first phase, which might be expected to last a year, the Working Group should gather information on the current state of trade networking and the anticipated pattern of development of working models. A report on this phase should be made available to all ICA members.

The Second Phase—In the second phase, the Working Group should be in a position to assess early pilot software available both to corporations generally, and that designed specifically for co-operative use. In this phase the Working Group will be in a position to gather information from their “home” organizations on co-op plans, needs and expectations in this area.
(Note: while it might seem as though this information gathering task could be begun in the first phase, it is likely that the Working Group will be better able to carry out this job with the results from the first phase in hand. In addition, most co-op organizations will not be highly sensitive to these issues until such networks have begun to emerge among their non-cooperative competitors.) There will be an opportunity in this phase to influence the development of collaborative software. This phase may take a year or perhaps two.

The Third Phase—In this phase the working group should play an active role in helping co-operatives to integrate trade and communications software into their organizations.
The time scale for these phases is fluid. Software developments have been proceeding at a quickening pace. Still, it is unlikely that the major research and development needed will take place in less than three years within the business community. However, non-cooperative businesses can be expected to implement trade and communications networks in stages throughout this period.

Much of the “standard” business network software will be used by co-operatives, leaving them with the much easier task of adapting and customizing it to suit their needs. Much of the actual development work in the co-op world will, therefore,  focus on database creation and network implementation specific to co-op organizations.

Composition of the  Group
This Working Group should be, to a large extent, picked to ensure that the members are well-connected to their home co-operative organizations and to co-operatives which can be expected to make early use of trade and communications networks. The members should also be expected to be able to encourage their organizations to implement, test and financially support the development of such networks.

It is important that all members be personally invited to join the Working Group by a high-level ICA official. This kind of visibility will add an important impetus to the work of the group.

* Mr.  Henderson, Director of Communications, Centre for the Study of Co-operatives, Canada, produced this project proposal for ICA in collaboration with Mary Treacy, Director of Communications, ICA Geneva.