The Other Side
of the Looking Glass

Most people immediately recognize that a cooperative, as a business model, provides a multitude of advantages. The values it promotes, its democratic movement, its special way of sharing wealth, its commitment to the community, all of this helps to generate a lot of sympathy for the model. However, there are also some flaws that can be somewhat unpleasant. First, they say that a cooperative is slow to react. Well, it is democratic: there are many people to consult. But today, a business must be quick, swift to react. Everything is moving so fast that you need to keep up so you aren't left behind. That's what they say.

They also say that cooperatives can't attract certain qualified employees because salaries never peak very high as they do in other working environments. This keeps cooperatives from getting the kind of brains that could improve their results. We've all heard that before! (Researchers even promoted a theory in the early 20th century that cooperatives were doomed to fail because of their slowness and their amateurism! Thank goodness there have been other studies published since then related to the sustainability of cooperatives that have completely discredited such thinking.)

Marius Chevalier, from the Université de Limoges, recently published an article in Recma magazine in which he positions the cooperative identity within its proper universe. If cooperatives seem disadvantaged by their slowness and their limited appeal, stated the professor, it is because they are judged according to the criteria of a market rationale. But cooperatives evolve within a completely different dimension: they come from a service rationale. With a new analytical framework based on the cooperative paradigm, Chevalier introduces the slower reactivity and limited appeal of cooperatives as assets that accurately explain their longevity. Now this is a hypothesis that goes against the flow! But Chevalier's argument is perfectly valid. First, he stated, slower reactivity is often viewed as an asset: because it reacts more slowly, the cooperative provides some stability in a world that is excessively volatile. Just like a hedge against inflation, it is very attractive, especially in times of crisis. This is in fact what has been observed over the past few years. And since the door is already open, allow me to add another advantage: decisions taken more deliberately and democratically allow the various players to become consciously accountable, which make their implementation so much easier.

In terms of its limited appeal, Chevalier argues that a company's results depend mostly on the skills acquired over time within the organization rather than on the presence of heavyweights who are highly visible in the industry. Such individuals are generally very mobile and do not stay with a company long enough to coordinate efficiently with the rest of the staff and management. It is clear to Chevalier that the stability of a team provides for the acquisition of extensive and in-depth knowledge of a company and the skills adapted to its context. This is what is known as tacit knowledge, which means all of the knowledge that emanates from the personal and professional experience of employees within an organization, knowledge that can only be acquired over time. And finally, allow me to add that today's generation has a whole new fringe who, suspicious of the financialised economy's recent setbacks, is seeking an enriching work environment more than a high salary.

It therefore seems that the dominant analytical framework is inadequate to understand cooperatives. By peering through the other side of the looking glass, Chevalier transformed a negative vocabulary of flawed reactivity and appeal affixed to cooperatives to recognize, among the many advantages of this model, the greater stability that it provides and the wealth of human capital that it can generate. Never forget that the choice of an analytical framework is never innocent!

Colette Lebel, agr.
Director Cooperative Affairs
La Coop fédérée
Fax: 514 850-2567


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