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What should CoTech be doing in year 2?

By Harry Robbins, 29 Nov 2017

Co-operative Technologists has had some great successes in its first year, but a lot more needs to be done if it’s to reach its full potential. There have been dozens of collaborations between co-ops, new co-ops started, non-co-op businesses converted and lots of press, publicity, and interest from all over the world. We’ll write up what we’ve done this year in a forthcoming blog. Despite our successes we have not got in place the structures, agreements, processes and relationships that will transform our sector. With the second annual gathering is a couple of weeks away, and with my lessons from Mondragon still in mind, I’ve been thinking about what we can do to start really making it work.

A year ago I posted a diagram of how CoTech (then known as ‘the Megazord’) might be structured:


So far…

A year later we’ve done something like this:

I think it’s fair to say we’re relatively happy about the growth, but the infrastructure – most notably any common fund, framework agreement or agreed decision making system – has been much more difficult to put in place. Consequently, the value of collaborations and the number of positive outputs has been relatively low. Even for the co-ops most involved it’s yet to transform their businesses – other than perhaps to give them renewed direction and vigour.

The reasons for the lack of infrastructure and agreements include:

  1. Most co-ops are short of spare funds and resources, largely due to focus on delivering social value and perils of small business ownership
    1. Hard to fund initial investment in collaboration
    2. Don’t have time for online discussions to create e.g. framework agreements
    3. Don’t have time to gather information about potential opportunities
  2. The co-ops are very diverse – different sizes, levels of maturity, business strategy, services, region
  3. The individual members of the individual co-ops do not, on the whole, have a good understanding of what each of the other co-ops does
  4. Some co-ops offer directly competing services, which makes it somewhat unclear how to route or respond to inbound enquiries

These are clearly very different types of issues – 1) is clearly bad, 2) is also a strength, 3) is a relatively easy to solve operational issue, 4) is something of a paradox which suggests certain courses of action.

Next steps

To me, getting more money and resources into the system is key. Low hanging fruit such as educating members better about the network might help, but it’s not going to be enough. The diversity of the co-ops and their somewhat precarious nature makes CoTech as a whole unwieldy and not very good at taking the sort of decisive action needed to generate surplus resources. We should therefore consider making CoTech a sort of ‘minimum viable organisation’ focused on growing the community and establishing common standards and practices, while finding or creating other vehicles to provide services by generating surplus resources.

There are many ways we could approach generating revenue. Various CoTech co-ops have applied for funding streams to get activities started and will continue to do so, but it’s not a sustainable source for what we envisage.

My initial idea was to create a new co-op called Co-operative Technology Services or similar which would be owned by its members – a subset CoTech co-ops that would subscribe to its services – as well as its employees. It’s supposed to carry out some of the “support bodies and services” role of the table diagram from my Mondragon blog.

Dan Stanley from The Small Axe has a similar idea that I think, on reflection is more practical (if anyone is up for it). His idea is to get a number of much more similar co-ops (possibly with a service design offering thrown in) to offer a combined service at a larger scale. E.g.

Certainly if I was going to invest in either Dan’s model or the “Co-operative Technology Services” model, Dan’s looks a lot more attractive. Leveraging the prodigious talents of CoTech and selling them into a market dominated by sharks, cowboys and dinosaurs sounds a lot easier than trying to integrate with the business systems of half a dozen small businesses that are already running at maximum capacity.

Obviously, the level to which the integration goes can vary a lot:

The idea (as I understand it) isn’t to merge the co-operatives or to have a ‘parent’ co-operative, but instead to have an entity owned by the co-ops that markets and co-ordinates the new service, presumably under a new brand.

I think that something like a ‘business cluster’ with a co-owned brand/service could be hugely effective, but it won’t be simple. It will require resources and most co-ops don’t have a lot to spare. That said, they are all missing different ones – that in part being the point of the exercise. Collaborating on more consortia pitches might be a way to prototype the new brand if we don’t have the necessary resources available.

I hope that we’ll get one or more clusters on their way to being formed at Wortley Hall, as well as consent to some basic changes and clarifications around our purpose, structure, decision making system, etc.