As some will know, I'm involved in supporting the start up and growth of co-operative enterprises of all types through various programmes, contracts, invitations, (and 'personal accidents'...). And having done do professionally for nearly 20 years at local to international levels, I'm of the view that often, the support offered to co-ops doesn't emphasise enough the importance of “co-op working” skills.
On the face of it, co-ops are much like any other business – they buy and sell stuff, keep accounts, pay taxes, employ people, and so on. But at their core is a set of values and principles which set them apart from all other types of organisations. And it’s how the Members and workers in co-ops understand and apply these values and principles in their work and relationships with others that usually determines whether the enterprise will succeed or fail.
Now I know of fellow co-op enterprise supporters who have written at length on what these co-op working skills are and what's involved in developing and encouraging them. I know of others who offer detailed training programmes on them (myself included!). There's even been a scientific formula for co-operation developed and endorsed by the national body for Co-operatives in the UK.
But I have an idea that like all great ideas and systems, they can all be summarised in a simple concept – for me, that concept is making a proper 'milky brew' (cup of tea).
Making a round of drinks for your fellow co-op Members and workers involves various things that are crucial to establishing and sustaining appropriate working relationships: knowing when the best time of day is to step away from the servicing of customers for a time without risking losing their trade to brew up; knowing that there's enough tea bags, milk and clean mugs to hand; knowing how people like their tea (I'm a “leave the bag in for ages, then lift it out before adding a splash of milk” type myself...); and knowing when they prefer to receive it. All of which can be taken as clear allegories for establishing the basics of the systems, procedures, and knowledge of others that underpins good working relationships in any context (and if you can't see what they are, then I'll explain it to you over a cuppa sometime... ;-)
Of course – not everyone likes tea; some prefer coffee, or even gin as their afternoon tipple. But in my experiences so far, it’s usually the things that appear inconsequential, like making the tea, that turn out to be the most important in revealing the state of workplace relationships and corporate culture.
(Oh yes – and my proper first office job was as a tea boy: within a year I was supporting the firm to gain new business and had discretionary control over budget spends, but always made sure that everyone kept getting their tea on time, just the way they liked it and as a result I became one of their longest-serving and most trusted employees...)