Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Unique Importance of Co-op Histories

While working on an institutional history of the Association of Vermont Credit Unions over the past few months, I've been giving the reason for writing such narratives a lot of thought. Particularly, I've come to the conclusion that, as a result of their unique ownership structure, histories of cooperatives serve fundamentally different purposes than do those of for-profit companies.

In the case of the latter, institutional history is commonly treated as a marketing tool. By crafting a narrative that puts the organization's best foot forward, a corporate history (whether in the form of a short blurb on a website or a full-length book) is generally driven by the goal of elevating the stature of its subject by providing it with ennobling historical roots. That objective, in turn, provides a powerful incentive to minimize (or overlook entirely) the conflicts and questionable moments that inevitably litter an organization's past.

At the root of this corporate tendency to whitewash their histories when presented for public consumption is the fact that their relationship with their customers is adversarial. As consumers are fickle and can often change which business they patronize with relative ease, it would be profoundly irrational for a corporation to actively promulgate an historical vision of itself which might damage its bottom line by scaring off its patrons. As a result, official corporate histories are notoriously unreliable and incomplete, which has, in turn, sparked a whole cottage industry of critical historical writing devoted to exposing the skeletons in corporate closets.

By contrast, the relationship of cooperatives (and consumer cooperatives in particular) to their histories is very different. Since the customers of such firms are, by definition, also their owners, the corporate concern over losing customers as a result of a warts-and-all portrayal of their history has little relevance to the cooperative context. Instead, such histories actually function to strengthen co-ops, since they provide the members and leaders of organizations with a clear sense of which paths have been taken or avoided in the past, and why. As a result, much of the institutional memory which is too often lost when a veteran board member or employee leaves can be preserved and used to inform future decisions without fear (as exists in a corporate environment) that its public exposure would cause great organizational harm. By maintaining a "long memory," cooperatives can cultivate an institutional culture (which their corporate competitors are structurally incapable of emulating) in which decisions can be based upon a deep and rational understanding of, and engagement with, past choices.

As philosophers from Francis Bacon to Michel Foucault have long recognized, the possession of knowledge is a source of great power. In the hierarchical, authoritarian cultures of many corporations, this fact is reflected in tireless efforts to obscure their pasts so as to deny their customers the power over them that knowledge of their history would provide. By contrast, at the core of the cooperative idea is the democratic dispersal of power: every member has an equal stake in the organization and an equal vote for the board of directors. However, such rights mean little if co-op members lack the information necessary to make truly informed decisions about how to wield their influence. As such, a corollary of dispersal of power to co-op members must be an equal dispersal of knowledge about the organization. Though such knowledge takes many forms (accurate annual reports, etc.), a comprehensive and well balanced institutional history is a vital tool of member empowerment that no cooperative should be without.

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