Beyond business as usual  

Bulldoze the business school! demands University of Bristol Professor Martin Parker in The Guardian, accusing business schools of passing capitalist ideology off as science. Rest assured, no such drastic measures are needed. Today’s modern business schools also devote time and energy to alternative models – just take the UEF Business School and its courses on cooperatives as an example.  

Text Maj Vuorre Photo Varpu Heiskanen

True, business schools all over the world teach a model that follows the logic of shareholder-owned corporations and privately-owned businesses. When a business school graduate starts working for a cooperative, there is a risk that the corporate logic is applied where it shouldn’t be.

“Cooperatives have their very own competitive strengths and weaknesses that need to be managed accordingly. This is why we want to educate our students about them. In my opinion, people should be taught about cooperatives at all levels of education,” says Professor of Intellectual Capital Management Anu Puusa.

The UEF Business School is the only business school in Finland to offer education on cooperatives extensively as part of the curriculum.  
“Our courses boast very prominent names as lecturers. They are also a great opportunity for our students to meet people from the very top of the cooperative world, and also to get a diverse perspective to each topic we are discussing,” Puusa says.

Cooperatives have a dual nature: they are both business enterprises and social groups. They are expected to be efficient, streamlined and responsive to the market, while also maximising the benefits of their members.

The world’s first cooperatives were founded some 160 years ago to safeguard people’s fair access to food and goods at reasonable prices, especially in rural areas. Urbanisation, however, made cooperatives somewhat unfashionable, and they also gradually disappeared from textbooks. As a consequence, an entire generation of people knows very little about them.

Now, however, cooperative actors are starting to realise that awareness raising is urgently needed.

“For a user-owned model, this is absolutely crucial: people need to understand that they are owners and they need to use the services produced. Otherwise the cooperative can’t thrive. However, the situation has improved since the 2000s, and cooperatives are now experiencing a revival of sorts,” Puusa says.

Globally, cooperatives employ more people than all the multinational corporations together, and they number over three million.  
“Considering their number and impact, they definitely deserve more attention,” Puusa says.

She continues: “Our aim is to raise awareness of cooperatives – we do not claim that they are any better, more ethical or have the moral high ground over their corporate counterparts. We simply want to present them as an equal alternative. In fact, some corporations may observe the cooperative principles better than some actual cooperatives. Moreover, a question that can and should be asked is whether modern cooperatives truly fulfil their original purpose.”  

Research addressing cooperatives is scarce, especially within economics and business studies. Moreover, there are no separate theories on cooperatives in management, marketing or accounting.

“This is where we want to make our contribution: to bring together existing theories, structure them, and raise people’s awareness of them.”

Times of economic stagnation and uncertainty often don’t inspire new openings and investments. Yet these are times when new cooperatives are most frequently founded. Puusa has studied small-scale cooperative enterprises and peoples’ ideas about what makes them attractive.

“Young people today are graduating into jobs that haven’t even existed before. Cooperatives offer a low threshold to becoming an entrepreneur and to do business in new and emerging fields, possibly with like-minded people and under flexible conditions. This is something that resonates with millennials in particular. And yet, they are real businesses that need to be run with due care and diligence.”  

For some, cooperative entrepreneurship offers an opportunity to change the course of their career, to downshift, to jump off the hamster wheel. For others, it can be about letting life dictate the conditions for work, and not vice versa.

Fact:

3 million cooperatives in the world
12 per cent of humanity is part of a cooperative
280 million people work for a cooperation (10 per cent of the employed population)
2.1 trillion USD in turnover generated by the Top 300 Cooperatives

Source: International Co-operative Alliance (https://www.ica.coop/en/cooperatives/facts-and-figures)

New Professor of Practice focuses on cooperatives

Spanning nearly four decades, Reijo Karhinen has made an impressive career in the Finnish cooperatives sector. Last August, the UEF Business School appointed him Professor of Practice, with a specific task to focus on the management of cooperative enterprises. According to him, not all cooperative enterprises today are managed according to cooperative principles, and it is important to ask why.  

“Another objective is to bridge gaps between theory and practice, and also between universities and companies. Here in Finland, the potential of cooperation between companies and universities hasn’t been fully seized yet,” he says.  

UEF Bulletin 2019