Co-op looks back to the future

In the past week, the Co-op has announced a new chief executive and joined talks on the sale of its bank. Change runs deep as the organisation continues its mission to mend and move on from troubled times – combining digital tools and a philosophy that goes back to 1844. Claire Braithwaite, the Co-op’s director of venture and partnerships, explains.

claire-braithwaiteFor those who have known me for a while, creating impact and creating change through digital technology, and in fact in finance as well, is very much what I’ve been about and have talked about a lot throughout my career. It was a priority when I headed Tech North and also at the Manchester Growth Company. It now feels like a dream opportunity to work for that within the Co-op.

Mike Bracken, who is the chief digital officer for Co-op, came in to the Group about a year ago and set up the digital team, so we are very much the new kids on the block and are starting to create change in an organisation that goes back many years in the city of Manchester.

The Co-op came through quite a famous crisis about three or four years ago, and you may remember stories about the bank chair, and the less salubrious sides. But a crisis can be a real opportunity to rethink what you are about.

The Co-op can trace its history back to the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844, the founding fathers of modern day co-operation.  Back then, the pioneers weren’t thinking about whether they could do something good. They were looking at genuine problems in their day-to-day livelihoods.

People were putting sawdust into flour and contaminating food so the rich could become richer, irrespective of what this meant for ordinary citizens. How could they build a different trading model, a different business model that solves these problems in their markets and create social good? How could they deliver positive value to customers and their members? This is where the values and principles of today’s global Co-operative movement came from.

So a group of traders decided to get together. They went down to the docks in Liverpool and they bought the food directly as it was coming in and they started a new trading organisation called the Co-op. You had to pay into it and you became a member.

From those fairly humble beginnings, the Co-op in many ways has changed the face of business and trading in this country and around the world throughout the 19th century and early 20th century.

When we moved into the post-war era and we started to compete in different markets and the differentiation that we had ourselves to change, the Co-op kind of forgot that it was the Co-op.

This was after all an organisation that was owned by its members, not by shareholders. Its purpose was about serving the general good of our members and the public and the communities that they live in.

Three years ago – when our bank ran into some pretty well-publicised problems – the wider group fought for its survival. It was that experience and that crisis that made the Co-op as an organisation ask, what do we really care about, want do we want to fight for and what’s important for us?

The last couple of years have really been about a reset, and a remembering of those values that brought the Co-op into being in the first place.

co-op logoSince Co-op Digital has been set up, one of the first pieces of work we’ve done is that reset and that piece around membership. Some of you may have seen our membership relaunch and joined us, reminding ourselves that this is a business that is owned by everyone. We really see that as being our point of difference.

So, we’ve relaunched membership and we’ve relaunched the brand. The question then becomes, what next? This is what’s exciting about Mike Bracken and I starting to ask these questions.

If the Rochdale pioneers were in Manchester, in the UK, in the world today – and let’s face it 2016 was a fairly seismic year – what would those pioneers have done? What are the broken markets? What’s not working in our world? And social change can only really come from businesses I think, and provide the energy that’s required.

So that’s really what the Co-op is looking at. How can we bring that Co-op difference to this 21st century digital world? It’s digital that is shaping and changing the world and making new possibilities and outcomes.

If you look at models like Uber, or Deliveroo, they are creating great wealth for certain people, but they are also creating very insecure work opportunities for many people too. We need to start to ask these questions as a city, as a community, as a country.

What actually do we want to create for our communities? The changes that have happened in the last year mean that actually the city now is now the most cohesive unit of change of community and of government in this country.

Part of how we as the Co-op want to start to address these challenges is to work co-operatively within the city of Manchester. We are developing Federation House (pictured), which is one of our buildings in the old Co-op estate, into an ‘open digital community’.

federation2Federation House is really going to be coming alive as a place where innovators, change makers, entrepreneurs – want to start to look at these challenges that our society is facing. And, based on co-operative values, like social responsibility, caring for others, openness and honesty – how we can start to create and drive change.

We’re looking to make it very much open, so that it’s open to the public and open to anyone who wants to come in. So it could be space for young companies, it could be space for organisations to collaborate as part of a civic innovation space. There will be an open coffee shop, where kids can come in and bootstrap young businesses.

We want to create a space at Federation House that young people feel comfortable coming into, and take part and explore. It’s will be a creative space.

We have three academy schools in north Manchester – and we are working with other schools around Greater Manchester. One of the challenges that schools have is how you communicate opportunities in digital careers to young people in schools. There are a lot of teachers that don’t understand what those opportunities are.

The other big piece for us is talent. How can we again working co-operatively with the people employers across Manchester, start to support the development of software talent in the city? If we’re going to create and be part of the change that’s required in Manchester to develop prosperity and opportunity for our young people and diversity, then how we open up opportunities in digital careers is going to be key.

Claire Braithwaite was speaking at DigitalAgenda’s recent city impact dinner in Manchester. Co-op chief digital officer Mike Bracken speaks at DigitalAgenda’s Impact Awards in London on March 2.