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Helping co-operatives and social enterprises to develop their strategies for the future

A co-operative approach to business that is founded upon democracy and promotes wealth creation and equality, as well as ethical responsibility has enabled companies worldwide to become major commercial and social players. In addition, recent years have seen the emergence of social and community enterprises; profit-seeking businesses which aim to do social good both with their profits and with their business activities. 

Understanding the development of business models of co-operation and social enterprise is key to adapting the approach to future challenges. Researchers at Northumbria University have been examining the key factors behind the success of these organisations and the insights obtained are having an important impact on the future of business in the UK and beyond.

Professor Tony Webster and Professor John Wilson at Northumbria University and researcher Rachael Vorberg-Rugh have been charting the success of the British and global co-operative movements, whose principles and practices are born out of the co-operative consumer societies established by the Rochdale Pioneers in the 19th Century. One of the researchers’ latest projects explores the British Co-operative Group’s historic strategies for developing a global business. This follows up their Co-operative Group funded business history of the Co-operative Group and the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS), which was the first since the 1950s.


To carry out these projects, the researchers were given unprecedented access to data from the Group, CWS and the National Co-operative Archive in Manchester. Interviews were also conducted with co-operative managers, senior officials and a wider body of social enterprises. Working with a range of internationally acclaimed academics and practitioners, one of the researchers has highlighted the ways in which co-operatives have moved from the margins of economic activity to the mainstream globally, and examines the strategies which have made this possible.


The work has reached a wide body of active co-operators, Co-operative group officials, social enterprise practitioners and the general public through public lectures (including the Co-operative Party) conferences, articles in the Huffington Post and Co-operative News, as well as a contributor to Radio 4’s series “British Socialism: The Grand Tour”, transmitted in February 2018.


The research was an important reference for two independent reviews conducted in 2014. The work was cited in the independent review of the governance structures of the Co-operative Group in Lord Myners’ report and by Sir Chris Kelly in his investigative report into the problems of the Co-operative Bank. In respect of the latter, one of the researchers has addressed Bank of England officials on the roots of the Co-operative Bank Crisis.


Coupled with this has been research and active collaborative work with the Workers Educational Association, the Rochdale Pioneers Museum and social enterprises in Newcastle and Rochdale to promote social enterprise education and knowledge of the co-operative movement; including a Big Lottery funded project in Walker, Newcastle.  This work has drawn upon insights gleaned from the research undertaken on co-operatives and social enterprises.


Further to the impact on Group officials, members and employees, the project resulted in several books, including  Building Co-operation: A Business History of The Co-operative Group 1863 -2013 and Mainstreaming Co-operation as well as various articles and book chapters, which have been a useful source of information for students and academics, as well as leading co-operative managers and advisers for the development of co-operative businesses.


(Photo acknowledgement: Rochdale Pioneers National Co-operative Archive, Manchester)

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