Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Cooperative Gestalt Approach to CSR

Imagine at a board meeting the issue of pollution is raised, and the directors’ responses all focus on how to deflect public attention from the serious damages their company is doing to the environment. Some suggest running an advertising campaign about their commitment to recycling their office supplies, others want to do something with schools involving children cleaning up their local ponds, and so on until an intern sitting at the back asks, “but what’s going to be done about the pollution itself?”

Whenever top executives are hit with their ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ moment, they have a choice. They can dispense with the messenger. Or they can take a closer look at what kind of organisation they have become and embark on a genuine change programme.

All too often the focus of corporate social responsibility (CSR) has been on how to get people to form a positive view of a company, as opposed to how to ensure they become disposed to interact with it in a positive manner.

‘Seeing’ is a static state and it is transient. A view formed one moment can be easily displaced by another if other experiences throw up contradictions. By contrast, the underlying disposition to interact in a particular way – the gestalt – affects how a person relates to the experiences from a defined source on an on-going basis.

The question is how should an organisation go about building relationships with the diverse stakeholders that make up its ‘public’ so that over time, they are more disposed to interact with it positively. Some may be tempted to use gloss and misdirection to draw people into a false sense of endearment towards the organisation. But not only is the very purpose of CSR incompatible with such irresponsible manipulation, such an approach is unstable as lies tend not to cohere in any broad narrative, carries huge risks in their exposure, and is ultimately unsustainable as we live in the age of pervasive surveillance and scrutiny.

The alternative is to commit the organisation to the development of the cooperative gestalt in all its interactions with stakeholders. The cooperative gestalt denotes a dispositional tendency that prevails when the people concerned are inclined to:
• Engage in cooperative enquiry: they believe in pronouncements about what is or is not the case in so far as these are open to evidential checking, objective observation, cross-examination by anyone who can make a contribution.
• Embrace mutual responsibility: they regard those they are dealing with as deserving of equal respect, and want to treat them with the same consideration as they would expect to be accorded to themselves.
• Expect participatory decision-making: they support decisions made on the basis that the decision-makers have sought and taken into account the ideas and concerns of those affected by the decisions in question.

Organisations that consistently behave towards their stakeholders in line with the cooperative gestalt will in effect be cultivating a similar set of dispositions amongst their stakeholders in how they will interact with those organisations.

A company that is ready to acknowledge its mistakes in causing pollution, financial mismanagement, safety failures, or its deficiencies in paying the poorest staff a sub-living wage, strong-arming small suppliers, destabilising communities through mass redundancies; and is prepared to rectify them, not by high profile declarations, but through sincere collaboration with those affected, will produce in everyone they deal with the deepest sense of trust and respect.

The history of institutions – be they national governments, transnational corporations, or local businesses – bears testimony to the inextricable connections between organisational actions in line with the cooperative gestalt and the mirror image of that gestalt in how people are disposed to interact with those organisations.

CSR can never work as a one-way broadcast about the virtues of a company. To carry any credibility, it has to be built on a reciprocal basis. Respect stakeholders, be open with them in making any claims so they can look into the foundation for such claims, and involve them in critical decision making – in return, they will respect you, seek your input rather than jump to conclusions, and give you credit where it is deserved, and the benefit of the doubt where you have slipped up.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Case for an Open Cooperativist Development Agency

Economic systems and practices that exploit workers, users, communities and the environment to the detriment of our common good have long ceased to command respect. The only reason they nonetheless persist is that most people do not see other, more viable, options as to how they can satisfactorily live and work. But in reality, there are plenty of alternatives.

Alongside the spread of economic democracy, and the renewal of cooperative enterprise as an economic and social model, there is gathering momentum in the building of new forms of Social and Solidarity Economy; the displacement of a myopic conception of ‘growth’ by a vision and strategy for sustainability; the emergence of more inclusive, commons-orientated politics in Greece, Italy and Spain; and grassroots transformation movements encompassing community land trusts, Transition Towns, and ‘Shareable Cities’.

Furthermore, all these alternative approaches share core values and beliefs that place mutuality, power equality, and common stewardship at the heart of productive human relationships. Together they are constructing the route to a different and better future for all.

However, anyone involved in advancing these approaches must recognise that the issue of scale has to be addressed. Advocacy for many of these ideas and their adoption in diverse localities have been going on for decades. The championing of commons and cooperative models has indeed been taking place since at least the 19th century. Although they flourish in a variety of locations, they remain a small minority when people look for opportunities to find work, make a fair return on what they have to offer, obtain financial support, or acquire the goods and services they seek. Conventional businesses that manage transactions between the many to generate profits for the few remain the dominant model of operation almost everywhere we go.

Advocates for alternative socio-economic models that embrace open and inclusive cooperation are increasingly engaged in collaborative efforts to promote what they have to offer. But to reach the tipping point where their favoured practices become the majority across society, it is necessary that in parallel with such advocacy and knowledge-sharing, a robust organisation structure is put in place to raise the resources needed to support the development of these practices on a much more extensive scale.

It is time, therefore, for advocates, organisations, funders, foundations who share the vision of building open, sustainable, cooperative commons in every sphere of human interaction, to join forces in establishing an Open Cooperativist Development Agency with a Board tasked with delivering the following eight functions:

1. Promote knowledge-sharing, highlight common ideals, and provide learning on why and how open cooperatives should be set up and developed.
2. Provide coop business angels to give advice on start-up, consolidation, and/or collaboration with others with shared interests or geographical focus (on a voluntary basis; funded by a central body supported by members’ contributions; or a fee on terms agreed with the advice-receiver).
3. Raise money from supportive funders and provide low cost loans/investment to pro-open cooperative organisations.
4. Arrange cooperatisation of non open coop businesses (arranging for discussions/voting sessions, lending money to workers to take over the business).
5. Work with unions, community groups, democratic campaigners, and political parties to develop pro-open cooperativist policies and secure wide support for their introduction.
6. Negotiate with local and national govt to set up community owned trusts, and other appropriate policy actions.
7. Adjudicate/mediate between multi-stakeholders.
8. Safeguard open coops from sell-outs or unprincipled takeovers.

Ideas are important in changing how people think about how organizations can be made to serve our needs more effectively. Yet we cannot live by ideas alone. Practical outreach, sustained technology transfer, political alliance building, intervention to repel corporate encroachment, and access to substantial funding are indispensable. Relying solely on diverse groups making ad hoc small-scale contributions to run a variety of projects will only take societal transformation so far. With a well-funded development agency guided by multi-stakeholder accountability, we would be much closer to a step-change in substituting plutocratic exploitation by authentic cooperation.

For the report, ‘Toward an Open Cooperativism’, by David Bollier & Pat Conaty, go to:
& ‘Why We Need a New Kind of Open Cooperativism’, by Michel Bauwens, go to: