Connecting Co-operators

Paul Thompson

Our free, online course, “Governance in Co-operatives,” has brought together nearly 1,500 co-operators from around the world to discuss governance in co-ops and social enterprises

We’ve discussed before in this space the potential for technology to spark innovation in the way we co-operate. This previous blog post discussed some of the new ways co-ops are being created using digital platforms. However, the proliferation of the World Wide Web, mobile phones, and social media in our daily lives haven’t just created new opportunities for co-operative enterprises, they have also created new avenues for educating people around the globe about the co-op difference.

As an education and research hub, it makes perfect sense for the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives to embrace these opportunities. In collaboration with Co-operatives First, we began offering a free, online course on governance in co-operatives in the fall of 2017. Last week, we concluded the third iteration of this course.

Over the past year and a half, 1,450 individuals from 41 countries across every inhabited continent have taken the course. In the spirit of the co-operative principles of education, training, and information, and co-operation among co-operatives, we bring co-operators from around the world together to discuss the unique challenges of governing democratically controlled organizations. If you’d like to learn more about the content of this course, check out this previous blog post.

As our recent “Top Co-op Issues” survey has shown for each of the last three years, the biggest challenge facing co-operatives is one public awareness of the co-op model. Providing a course that is free and accessible is one step toward addressing this challenge. From the feedback we have received, participants in the class have found it extremely valuable.

“Being acutely aware of the skills outlined in this course gives me checks and balances to each thought process and plan, whether its mine or a board, management or member[‘s].”

-2019 Course Paricipant

“I have found this course particularly valuable as a way to put much of what I have previously practiced as business owner and manager into a clearer framework, and thus more see the parallels in governance best practices that can be applied to a co-operative or non-profit entity.”

-2019 Course Participant

Yet, the benefits of digital education also come with challenges. While organizations like the Centre and Co-operatives First have been able to use digital learning to amplify their signal, the noise has never been louder. We live in an age of peak content; there has never been more competition for your time and attention.

This abundance of information undoubtedly affects our ability to get the co-op message out. The signal also gets scrambled somewhat because investor-owned businesses have started to emulate some of the things that make people feel connected them to their co-ops: things like concern for community or addressing social and cultural needs.

In the face of all of these challenges, it’s important to remember that co-ops retain some essential differences relative to investor-owned business that are important to recognize and emphasize. Co-ops offer truly local solutions to the problems we face in our communities. And no matter how much they may try, investor-owned businesses cannot address these problems as co-ops can, with democratic decision-making and equitable outcomes.

The overwhelmingly positive response we’ve had to our Governance in Co-operative course reminds us that when people are looking for a true, clear signal that there is another way of organizing ourselves to provide the goods and services we need. That’s why we hope that if you haven’t already done so, you’ll join us in the next iteration of our co-op governance conversation in fall2019. And just as co-ops continue to adapt to an evolving environment, so too will we update and expand our online course offerings in the future.

Keep checking in at our website and stay tuned to this blog for more information as it becomes available.

Paul Thompson, Knowledge Mobilization Officer, Centre for the Study of Co-operatives, University of Saskatchewan