Co-operatives skills training: meetings, management, conflict and change

Over the last year or so Rhizome’s been working with Co-operatives UK to assess the training needs of co-ops, bring on board other training co-ops, and agree and design a package of 5 seminars all around co-operation.

For too long co-op training has focused on business start-up, legal structures, financial management. All necessary stuff, but none of it supports us to learn to co-operate better. So that’s where these courses come in. They aim to support co-ops with the skills and attitudes needed to co-operate through conflict, change, meetings, in management, and in developing that deeper sense of what it means to co-operate.

The first courses run soon in Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester and can be booked through the Co-operatives UK website.

The process of co-operating on the course aims and content has raised some interesting questions on what we believe we can achieve through training – developing co-operative skills? Developing co-operative skills and attitudes? Sadly the pressure to get the courses up and running hasn’t allowed us the luxury of exploring these questions fully. But as we run the courses and learn from each other, the answers will become clearer – we’ll cross-fertilise between co-ops and co-develop our own co-operative skills (and maybe attitudes!).

Rhizome trainers will be at work on the Communication and working with conflict and Being a good co-op member courses to start with. See you there.


Learning to co-operate?

There’s loads of valuable support out there for anyone wanting to start up a co-op. It’s certainly easier than it was in 1992 when, along with 2 others, I started the process of co-founding the first co-op of my working life. But even now, 20 years later, the focus is still primarily on the ‘business’ end of that process – legal structures, administration and business advice. The ‘people’ end seems to get less emphasis. And yet any successful co-op is far more than a particular form of legally constituted organisation. It’s a group of individuals coming together and choosing to give up a part of their autonomy to work collectively because they understand that by doing so they can realise a vision that they couldn’t realise alone. The whole being more than the sum of its parts, and all that.

Don’t get me wrong, back in ’93 we needed all the support we could get on the business side of things. But it didn’t take long for us to realise that we aren’t all as adept at co-operating on that interpersonal level, day in day out, as we might at first have assumed. Many of the processes we adopted, because they spoke to our values and hopes for how we’d relate (such as consensus decision-making), were learnt through cross-pollination from the activist world rather than through co-op support channels.

Rhizome’s working with Co-operatives UK to try to redress the balance. We’ll be at the Co-operatives United event in Manchester this week helping to conduct a learning needs survey, which we hope will lead to some high quality support for co-ops in areas such as decision-making, communication, and dealing with conflict. There are many ideas under consideration – from the more obvious face-to-face training through online learning to mentoring and workplace secondments.

If you are a co-op and can’t make the event, never fear. Fill in the survey online so that your voice, and learning needs, are heard! If you are at the event and someone leaps out at you with a clipboard, be nice – it could be Rhizome’s own Carl, Gill, Jo or Maria!


Together we are stronger

I was recently reminded of the Greener Together toolkit I helped
write, whilst wearing my Sostenga hat. This toolkit, written for
Co-operatives UK, is designed to support individuals taking practical actions
that create change, and to guide working with others, taking collective

When all around us society atomises, alienates and encourages
individualism, is it old-fashioned to hope for collective action, to
believe that together we are stronger?  Well, old-fashioned it ain’t – but
how can we adapt ideas that made sense to previous generations, or is it
just a question of packaging?  In the current economic climate, in the
coming climactic changes, we should use the 2012 UN International Year of
the Co-op to remind ourselves of the efficacy of co-operative structures
and timeliness of the co-operative movements ideals and values.


festival of co-operation

Co-operatives United is an inspiring global festival of events and exhibitions set in Manchester, UK, to mark the close of the United Nations International Year of Co-operatives. With 1 world premiere, 3 exhibitions, 10 conferences, 45 countries, 150 workshops, 200 exhibitors and 10,000 people, Co-operatives United will inform and inspire everyone building an ethical economy and a better world.”

So says the website.

We’ll probably be going – will we see you?

Co-operation – 2012’s not all about the Olympics

As of yesterday, it’s International Year of Co-operatives, a UN initiative to promote co-operative models of business. Rhizome is a co-op, so it seemed a good idea to tell you a little about that – what does it actually mean, and why would we bother?

I’ve been involved in 2 previous co-ops, both workers’ co-ops in which the employees of the company are also its directors. Employee ownership. Very simple. Rhizome however is different. We’re a co-operative consortium – a collective of freelance trainers, facilitators and mediators who come together to do some of their work under the Rhizome banner. We’re all self-employed. We choose how involved we want to be in Rhizome, and we can be flexible about that – doing more or less as fits with the rest of our lives.

So why the co-op? What’s in it for us? What’s in it for you?

For the 7 people involved in Rhizome mutual support, and the sharing of ideas, skills, and challenges ranks high. At a recent Rhizome gathering the energy just from all being in the same room, and from getting an opportunity to share ideas, thoughts and approaches on issues that we found challenging or interesting was tangible. One person even said (and I paraphrase) that “in 20 years of facilitating I’ve never had the chance to have these conversations”.

We also get asked to do very interesting work with interesting and exciting groups of people who are making real change in the world (and in themselves). That isn’t something all facilitators can say of their work.

And of course Rhizome is also a known entity with a reputation and an ever-growing list of groups and organisations that have chosen to work with us. That brings in some paid work, so there’s some income (very modest at present) to be had. But most Rhizome folk earn the bulk of their living elsewhere, coming to Rhizome for the challenge of the work we do, and the mutual support.

For you there are equal benefits. One of the most exciting things, for me, about Rhizome is that it makes a vast array of skills and experience available to communities and activist groups and organisations. Because of our co-operative consortium structure there’s less pressure to earn 100% of your income with Rhizome, to commit 100% of your working life to Rhizome. If that pressure existed, most of the 7 of us would have to decline and take our skills elsewhere to earn our living. But as things stand people can get involved in Rhizome on their terms and thus be available to you and the groups you work with.

Being a co-op also keeps us in tune with many of the skills we support others to develop – what it means to work in a group, what it means to be doing consensus, what it means to be communicating effectively, developing empathy and trust and much more. A hierarchical structure doesn’t foster those values in the same way and we’d be more likely to lose touch. And a solo freelance career doesn’t create the opportunities for peer reflection, and to learn from co-facilitation and observation that Rhizome gives. All that means we’re better at what we do when we work with you

We also get to support each other in innovating and taking risks – both in creating a space in which it’s OK to try out new ideas, but also creating a space in which you can be pushed further than you had planned to go in your risk-taking. And trust me when I say that that means better support for you.

There are other aspects of co-operative working. One of the 7 principles of co-operation is mutual aid between co-ops. As a co-op we’re more likely to look for another co-op for any external support we need – so we’ve used Calverts Co-op for our printing, and Cooportunity to do our end of year accounting. We’re also more likely to get asked to work with another co-op. As I type Carl is training mediators drawn from co-ops across the UK for Co-operatives UK.

Personally, I find that co-ops are the only place I can flourish. They’re not without their challenges. But I hope the benefits to you and to us far outweigh the problems.