Principles to Practice : From Manchester to Seoul through Jaipur (1998)
(Source: Co-op Dialogue, Vol. 8, No. 3, Oct.-Dec., 1998, pp. 17-20)
The Asia Pacific region of the ICA confronts the challenge of how to apply the values, concepts and principles of the ICA Identity Statement to the every-day activities of the regionís co-operatives. Having participated in two other meetings concerned generally with the issue in this region, I want to say how much I have learned from the discussions. As you will see, it has profoundly affected how I think about the subject, and for that I am most grateful.
I will begin by making a few observations about the context of our discussions as I view it. The Identity Statement was a necessary step so that the international movement could clearly establish its unique role.
Broadly speaking, that was necessary for three reasons. First, the need to project, not least to co-operative leaders and members but also others, most particularly government officials, a clear understanding of the nature of co-operative uniqueness. Second, it was necessary to distinguish co-operatives clearly from the private sector. Third, it was important that co-operatives have a clear understanding of their uniqueness so they could broaden out or leverage their influence, not only with each other, but also, with appropriate safeguards, with other organisations, public and private.
As the process for creating the Identity Statement gathered momentum, it was recognized that it was only a step. The next step would be to consider what the implications were for organisations that took seriously the mandate inherent in the Statement. Originally, it was envisioned that that step would be taken through the development of statements of operating principles for the various sectors. That was the way in which it was originally conceived co-operatives could move from principles to practice. A few sectors, most notably the co-operative housing sector, did develop such principles, but the majority did not, meaning that discussions about the appropriate operation of co-operatives in light of the Identity Statement have developed in various ways around the movement.
One can carry out those discussions using one of several vantage points, such as members, government relations and capital formation. In the Asia Pacific Region, the starting point for the development of appropriate practice has become concentrated upon the importance of values-based professional management. This is an understandable and important focus, given the perennial and immediate challenges confronting co-operatives.
The contemporary economic stresses impose major challenges upon the co-operatives in this region as in other regions. The increasing competition from the private sector and the liberalisation of government economic policies affect the ways in which co-operatives carry out their businesses; as a result, the need for stronger, more effective, management is abundantly clear. It is an appropriate emphasis deserving of widespread support.
I will, therefore, do my best, to describe what I think values-based professional management entails. In doing so, I will be building upon the discussion which began in Jaipur and from which I have gleaned so much.
At Jaipur I proposed that, as part of a broader understanding of the dynamics typical of co-operative organisations, that co-operatives, in general, carried out their activities primarily in certain spheres of activity over which they had considerable control. At that time, I thought there were three spheres, but I came to realize from the discussions that we had and from other conversations since, that there really are five that deserve to be emphasized. They are: member relations, community, state, structure and management.
For me, 'co-op managementí as a field of practice should refer to the overall co-ordination of initiatives in all five of these spheres, but, at that level, it is a subtle and complex form of activity involving not only professional managers but also the entire control structure of the co-op: in other words, the elected leadership, members and employees all of whom should play important roles in contributing to the health of the organisation. It is in this broad realm of management that the most obvious questions related to co-operative values most readily appear. I will return to this broader notion of management later.
The other dimension of management consists of the mobilisation of resources so that a co-op can be a steadily improving warrior in what the ICA President, Roberto Rodriques, refers to as the Third World War, the unfolding war for markets.
This is a war co-ops must win in their own special way; this is the war in which the professionalism of co-op managers will be most seriously tested and most urgently required.
I would hasten to add, however, that a mere replication of professional management in the private sector will not ultimately meet all the tests: perhaps ultimately what we need to fashion is a kind of professional co-op manager.
In fact, to put the point another way, I think it is important for the movement - and I have already heard some discussion of it - to consider the three dimensions of the focus in this region: ëvalues-basedí, ëprofessionalí and management. None is as easily defined as one might at first think; each is susceptible to narrow and narrowing definitions. It would be unfortunate if all three were not considered within co-operative ways of knowing, if they became little more than echoes of what is the conventional wisdom of our main competitors.
Let me turn, then, to a few thoughts upon how to move from principles to practice. It seems to me that there are some best practices by which to make that journey. They are as follows.
Move from the Identity Statement to practice, not the easiest route, but the one that best ensures a seamless garment stretching over the essential co-operative body of linking thought with action.
Recognize the inherent strength of the principles: they are guides as well as measuring sticks.
Recognize that the Identity Page really affirms the validity of ësituationalí as well as absolute objectives. For me the most important point is that co-operatives are ultimately pragmatic organisations in which the normal process is to identify where you are, compare that with where you want to be, and then take steps to achieve your goals in a organized, deliberate fashion. That approach has particular applicability when co-operatives are attempting to become more professional in their operations and attempt to apply systematically the values basic to the movement.
Adapt what you can from the private and the public sector but always within the mindset and outlooks typical of co-operative organisations.
Turning now to each of the spheres, I would like to highlight what I think are best practices. You will appreciate that the ideas I put forward are general.
It is my hope that they will be useful to you as you consider how your organisation and movement seek to implement the directions indicated by the Identity Statement.
Maximize relationships, particularly emphasizing member commitments as owners, users and investors.
Treat members as people with diverse needs (and therefore offering diverse possibilities for service from their co-ops) not just as customers for a specific set of products and services.
Build your co-operative on member needs.
Give the members good value.
Engage all segments of your membership, including women and youth.
Focus on the future as well as the present - the co-operative is a trust that is extended, although often in changed forms, from one generation to another.
Strive for maximum transparency in all your operations.
Define your community clearly, recognizing that there are numerous ways in which "community" can be defined.
Think about the community strategically. Where does its interest coincide with that of the co-operative? How can the co-operative improve the viability of the community or communities it serves?
What other organisations can the co-operative work with to enhance the community?
Take a long view of community interests. How can the co-operative contribute t the sustainability of the community in which it exists?
Establish specific goals for the co-operativeís activities in the community.
Establish specific ways in which you can measure your community activities.
Monitor the impact your co-operative is having on its community.
Take the state seriously: it is incorrect to assume that the state will not always profoundly shape how co-operatives will function.
Understand the priorities of the state. There will always be ways in which government officials, if they are aware of the co-operative model and concerned about expanding its use, can be of immense help to the development of the movement.
Lobby governments continually. This is the primary job of apex organisations but co-operatives on the local level also have important roles to play: nothing impresses a politician more than a delegation from his or her riding; public servants will always be impressed if they see support coming from many parts of a region or country.
At the same time, maintain an appropriate distance from government so that members, not politicians or bureaucrats, control the co-operative.
Work with government to provide a supportive environment for the development of co-operatives, both the existing established co-operatives and those emerging to meet new needs or groups of people not already being served through co-operatives.
The structures we create to serve members directly or co-operatives generally are means; they are not ends. It is inevitable and usually healthy when co-operatives reorganize so as to meet needs in a better way. Communication revolutions, better managerial practice, population shifts, technological innovation, rationalisation of services - these and so many other factors make it necessary to reorganize co-operative structures. We should not shrink from these changes if the result is a better organisation, better able to serve its members and with a better chance of a more promising future.
Recognize that local structures will have to change: there are probably more co-operatives than are sustainable.
Ensure that women and youth are adequately involved at all levels of the structures of your co-operatives.
Recognize that there will be tremendous advantage in working across sectors. The co-operation among co-operatives rule so regularly ignored. I am particularly impressed with the way in which the movements in this region are considering and beginning to establish more integrated activities around the production and distribution of food.
Take advantage of the rich Asian heritage. It is absolutely amazing to me to try to come to terms with the rich diversity of Asian experiments in co-operative action. Perhaps nowhere else in the world has there been so much experimentation with different kinds of co-operatives and with different ways to organize and develop them. I know of no other part of the world where there has been so much flexibility. While there may be some need to apply some forms of organisational discipline, there is great value in retaining the kind of flexibility which is the regionís hallmark, at least to me.
Recognize the contribution of management adequately.
Compensate managers fairly.
Insist upon the most professional management possible.
Encourage a co-operative value system among managers.
Recognize that management by its nature is always changing, that it needs to be supported and encouraged in its attempts to keep pace with the daily pressures from the market place.
Encourage gender neutral workplaces and promotion policies.
Insist upon fair treatment of employees.
Ensure that the direct internal management of your co-operative is supportive of the activities in all the other spheres.
Thus, you can see from my vantage point the direction that this region has taken is specific - a focus on significantly upgrading the management capabilities through such programmes as those advocated by Peter Davis. But the process is a complex and challenging one.
In effect, like so many of the pioneers of co-operatives in so many countries, you are searching for the best way to meet member needs through effective organisations operated in conformity with the values and the principles basic to our movement. There is no more difficult - or rewarding (in all senses of the word) - task that you could undertake.
But why is this important? The obvious answer to this question is perhaps reason enough - that better, value-based management will serve members and communities more effectively. But there is another answer that I think in the long run is equally important. There is a common view that the world is moving forward into a common kind of modernity shaped by a globalized market place, increasingly integrated financial networks, an increasingly uniform popular culture and, perhaps, more unified geopolitical systems.
While acknowledging that such trends are occurring I question whether the only or the best alternative is a single world society. Rather, I think a world with a multitude of modernities is preferable, one in which economic and social organisations are shaped to be different cultures and derive their strength from local differences.
Is there a better kind of institution to build that better world than co-operatives? Is there a more important reason to ensure that the values and the professionalism we seek are specific to the co-operative way of doing business, the co-operative way of leading oneís life?
General Best Practices
Ensure that the direct internal management of your co-operative is supportive of the activities in all the other spheres.
* Prof. McPherson participated at the Manchester Congress, where he presented the New Co-operative Identity Statement, at the Special Workshop on ICA Co-operative Identity Statement and the Global Forum held in conjunction with the ICA Regional Assembly for Asia and the Pacific in Seoul, Korea - October, 1998. This is a presentation he made in Seoul.