Peter Couchman is the Chief Executive of the Plunkett Foundation.

The Plunkett Foundation is the organisation which promotes and supports co-operative and social enterprises in rural communities both in the UK and internationally. It provides support, networks and knowledge which offers practical solutions for rural communities that helps to create thriving places where people live and work now and in the future.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Back to College

Last week saw me going back to college. Not, I hasten to add, because of the start of the new school year, but two events both held in Oxford. The International Co-operative Alliance Research Conference at Queens College, Oxford was quickly followed by the Society for Co-operative Studies Conference at Ruskin College, Oxford.

Spending several days immersed in academia had me thinking about its relation to our work. It seems to me that there is great opportunity, but the challenge is finding the right people to link with. Put simply, I'd suggest that the academics fell into three distinct groups.

The first are completely dispassionate about co-operatives and approach them with all the passion of one who is about dissect a frog in a biology class. This group rarely manages to connect with the passion of the movement, but is thankfully very small in number.

The second group cares about the sector, but produces work which has little if any application by real enterprises. This is the largest group.

The real value lies in the third group which not only cares but also produces work which could be taken and used on the ground. Few in number, the potential of these of great and Plunkett looks forward to working with them.


  1. Peter, did you know the job description for the Chief Exec of Co-operatives UK now includes a mandate to commission and publish strategic (and that's the operative word) research into co-operation?

  2. My prejudices about academics are different. I distinguish between those who produce work that advances our understanding of a topic because it is based on sufficient breadth of fact gathering and sufficient depth of analysis; and those who don't measure up to this.

    So I don't think we should dismiss the clinically objective as a category - objectivity is something of a virtue in research (and research produced by known sceptics can be doubly influential if it confounds their scepticism).

    Nor should we underestimate the value of good research from the second group. Understanding the varied dynamics of successful social enterprises at a theoretical level is surely valuable to any organisation which seeks to promote social enterprise approaches? It may be of little practical value to community groups, but part of Plunkett's role is to act as a bridge between theory and practice.

  3. Anonymous: No I haven't seen the JD but it doesn't surprise me. Co-operatives UK has a good track record of research commissioning, such as its recent Community Shares work. Ed Mayo has also been an astute commissioner of research, so let's hope for great things.

    Peter: I agree in general, but in the case of co-operative research, if you don't understand what makes them different then the findings are unlikely to capture the reality. If we take the last two decades of research, I can't cite one piece of research from the first two groups which has either aided existing enterprises or reshaped policy. Whereas, academics in the US and Canada often become co-operative leaders themselves through the influence that their work has.