Mad Management: Cooperation - the key to success in Europe, business and community

editorial image

In concluding my observations on the Brexit negotiations I will repeat the three key points I made in the last two editions:

It is an exercise in damage limitation and the best approach is joint problem-solving

Another great example is Mondragon, the world’s largest business cooperative, in Spain, today employing over 80,000 people across the world

We need a fallback position which could be the USA, China, India or the WTO, none of which give rise to optimism.

As we have no power we need to plan for all possibilities.

Given the pushback that Davis is getting (Michel Barnier, the chief EU negotiator, has already said: “I am not in a frame of mind to make concessions or ask for concessions,” “We are looking to unravel 43 years of patiently-built relations.”) aggravated by Theresa May’s clumsy citizens’ rights proposal, we now need to reframe Brexit.

Our fallback position has to be no Brexit, while some of the EU members are still in conciliatory mode. The negotiating team has to go back to parliament and ask for a new mandate.

History might show that, along with “Never invade Russia”, “Never leave the EU” might just rank up there with the best political advice ever.

And to those who will say that it was the “will of the people” we need to reply that, if we had a referendum on capital punishment, we would probably have to bring back hanging.

But now, back to business: Last week I introduced business heroes, Ray Anderson and the Borough Markets for their moral and compassionate stances. Note that Anderson’s Interface company is capitalist, but one that “does well by doing good” as he said, while Borough Markets is a charity that is also a successful business. So, in the face of all this hi-tech inhumane behaviour, eg Amazon, these show the human side of enterprise.

The supporters of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos might protest that they are so innovative. Well, maybe, if you call yet another version of a phone, computer, or digital system innovative, as opposed to adaptive. But why not be innovative in a way that empowers people, instead of exploiting them?

Previous articles have highlighted Sheffield companies that do empower, eg Swann Morton, Gripple and Forgemasters, nationally, John Lewis, and, internationally, the Tata Group. The leaders of these companies gave precedence to employees over profits. Another great example is Mondragon, the world’s largest business cooperative, in Spain, today employing over 80,000 people. It was started by a young Catholic priest deploying Catholic Social Teaching, which emphasised the common good, solidarity and subsidiarity, by following the organisational principles of Robert Owen and the later Rochdale Pioneers.

This brings me to another really innovative organisation thinker who followed hard on the heels of Fritz Schumacher of “Small is Beautiful” fame, ie Robin Murray, who has just died. He was an innovative industrial economist, who studied business organisations deeply from a secular humanist perspective and, being a man of enormous energy, set about changing things.

He described our business world as “not an economic system at ease with itself”, and advocated cooperatives as the places where both productivity and joy at work – as Deming would say – could flourish. His innovative achievements were manifold.

As chief economic adviser to the Greater London Council in the eighties he developed an inclusive London Development Strategy that eventually led to the Regional Development Agencies. In 1985 he helped set up Twin, a trading organisation with the aim of ensuring economic equity for (third world) producers. The group now acts for more than 300,000 small farmers, while the fair trade sales emerging from Twin total £1.65 billion in the UK.

In common with Ray Anderson of Interface, Robin Murray set about challenging levels of waste across the UK and leading research into new technology for reducing the carbon footprint. He consulted and wrote incessantly, advising governments and civil society in the third world and, recently, Greece. The inspiration for much of his thinking was the Italian region of Emilia Romagna, where he met true cooperativism and industrial innovation. This has parallels – and lessons – with Sheffield and South Yorkshire.

Emilia Romagna has a rich history of cooperation and entrepreneurship – and independence. Much of this was centred on the Po river valley where there had to be cooperative sharing of the water resource, the water mills, their version of Sheffield’s mills and Little Mesters. The spirit of cooperation continues. It has one business for every 12 citizens, ie very entrepreneurial, but is known as the “Red Belt” because it has voted solidly to the left for 50 years.

In the social care sector social cooperatives provide over 80 per cent of the care, often employing disabled people. The co-ops are small and local, applying the subsidiarity principle that the people closest to the need are the best to provide it. They also endeavour to employ special needs workers.

Every business sector cooperates with the others through formal and informal networks, supported by the state. These cooperatives deliver 45 per cent of the GDP. The region has the highest GDP in Italy. Bologna also has the oldest university in Europe, with 80,000 students, and a postgraduate degree on the civil economy and cooperatives. Sheffield Business School has piloted a similar programme.

Perhaps, instead of South Yorkshire sending delegations to China, SBS could organise visits to Bologna, stopping over at Mondragon on the way?