Monday, November 9, 2015

Durham Co-op -- The Consultants

I have set out elsewhere the advice the Board of Durham Co-op Market (DCM) have attributed to the Weaver Street Market Co-op (WSM) GM, in the DCM Board deliberations which preceded their decision to promulgate a referendum, seeking to abolish worker shares in DCM, which referendum has now been withdrawn pending further discussion.

The consultants the DCM Board have been using have now decided to post their own statement on the discussion thread following the original article on Bull City Rising. Sigh.

Merrily scattering disclaimers all over the place, I decided to enter the fray (again), and offer a gentle rebuttal. To be honest, I've had enough of so-called co-operative consultants peddling a line which, in my personal opinion (only), has absolutely nothing to do with applying co-operative business principles in practice. It might seem harmless. But not when it leads to the sort of episode we have just witnessed with DCM.

CDS statement:

"There are all kinds of cooperatives including consumer-owned, worker-owned, farmer-owned, and multi-stakeholder. We love them all! CDS Consulting Co-op is a shared services cooperative owned by our member consultants. As consultants committed to supporting other cooperators, we often base our recommendations on what we have seen work for other co-ops.

While we are intrigued with multi-stakeholder models, we know of only one example of successful implementation of a worker/consumer hybrid food co-op - Weavers Street Market. Given the rarity of this model, it's not one we have a strong reason to recommend or identify as a best practice.

Starting a new food co-op is a very complicated and challenging endeavor that takes several years to implement. In order to survive, new co-ops require an intense focus on building sales, improving operations, and achieving profitability. We think the more complicated multi-stakeholder model makes it even more challenging and therefore do not advise it at the start up stage. This is a matter more of practicality than of values.

We support the Durham Co-op Market's board decision to take more time to discuss the organizational structure with the co-op's members. If they decide to implement the multi-stakeholder model, we will offer the best consulting support we can to help them move forward with their decision.

Marilyn Scholl, manager
CDS Consulting Co-op"

My gentle response:

"I apologize, but I'm going to introduce a slightly tendentious note. As before, I want to stress the views I'm about to share are personal, and do not represent in any fashion the official line of Weaver Street Market Co-operative - although I might wish that they did. These views are, however, based upon some nine years of advocating for worker rights within WSM, and attempting to make WSM a stronger business by being a better co-op (and if you're in any way interested in what that looks like, maybe take a peek at my blog, linked below).

The representative of CDS says: "In order to survive, new co-ops require an intense focus on building sales, improving operations, and achieving profitability." I'm bound to say this is very much reflective of a fearful attitude prevalent among many in the co-op community. The inference is that we can get around to being a co-op once we're successful as a business.

Look, I'm not stupid. I used to earn six figures a year as a management consultant. I know how to do corporate capitalism. But why is it that so many in our co-op community are so scared of the notion that it is co-operation that enhances the chance of profitability, rather than being an obstacle or an afterthought?

What first attracted me to co-operation was the notion that it represented an alternative business model. Not just an alternative ownership model. But a whole new way of making a business successful.

As I see it, the concept always has been this. You get to the heart of what it is you want to do. You have a group of people who have a common need. Could be groceries. Could be a mushroom farm. Or horse-riding. You set about mutually meeting the need. While removing all the extraneous outside interferences that add cost to the equation: capital that can be speculated; empire-building management; marketing that guesses, as opposed to consumers deciding what they want.

You bring in people dedicated to providing the need, and ask them how they would like to provide the need. Because if you ask, and they are allowed to decide, then they are invested in making sure the how they decided actually works.

Nothing here of that intense focus on remote management techniques, operational excellence, building sales, etc. etc. Just meeting a need, the simplest way possible, by asking consumers and then asking workers. Democracy.

And for the life of me, as simple as the concept appears to be to me, someone steeped in the arcane intricacies of corporate capitalism, I simply do not understand why co-operative consultants seek solace in those arcane intricacies, rather than actually giving economic democracy its best chance.

DCM have taken a moment to rethink their path. I would invite them to use the moment to rethink more than just the voice they give to workers. Actually take a longer moment genuinely to work out why you want to be a co-op at all.

Co-operation. Democracy. Inclusion. Consensus. These are not afterthoughts to the business model that should be DCM - and WSM for that matter, too. They are the very foundation which creates the business model that is the much better alternative to conventional corporate capitalism."

Just to keep things updated, Bull City Rising just posted an account of the DCM Annual Meeting last evening. This is the last time I will be posting from that blog. For no reason other than the fact that I have an EP to complete! I invite you to keep any eye on the blog yourselves.

[As always, I am duty bound by WSM Employee Policy to state that these opinions are mine alone, and do not in any way represent the policy of WSM. Mind you, anyone who is an employee of WSM is subject to the same policy. I can't help but wonder about the manner in which the DCM Board were offered the advice they attribute to WSM; whether any declarations were made about the nature of that advice (personal or WSM policy); and, if the latter, what entity of authority within WSM has ever properly determined a policy which states that WSM may tell other co-op's that worker-ownership is not best practice. I mean, I wonder.]