If communication needs to be closely linked to the identity of the enterprise that makes use of it, the cooperative world–which is historically an expression of clear identifying values, a declared vision and dedication to a mission for which it has built its own idea of profit–is faced with a very difficult challenge.
The first question is: if the paradigm is a valid communication model for non cooperative enterprises, is it also effective for a cooperative enterprise?Or, does a cooperative enterprise need to search for its own communicative paradigm that is profoundly different from what is normally applied to capital enterprises? This question does not only apply to the world of cooperation, but to the nature of communication itself.
Is communication a neutral tool, or rather a neural tool that adapts well to all socio-economic, political, and cultural contexts that decide to utilize it, independently of their vision of society or the economy? Or,is communication inextricably linked to the social, economic, political or cultural identity of those who make use of it? Essentially, is communication a technique that assigns formal or real aspects to productive processes?
The apparent unsustainability of the paradigm which has prevailed until now–that of consumption–and of the relative communicative model (transmissive, hierarchical, emulative) can represent an opportunity for an important shift in the system for cooperative enterprises, underlining the statutory values of the movement. In primis, the value of mutuality and reaffirmation of the possibility of a new economic system that puts into motion experimentation of a novel working communicative model to attain the desired objectives.
Only through generative communication–supporting identity and strongly rooted in the vision, mission and story of the cooperative world–will values like mutuality, participation, responsibility, and solidarity return to being true. Likewise, generative communication supports objectives like protecting local products as an expression of a socially and economically strategic cultural heritage, listening to and defending the buying power of members of a group, and respecting workers’ rights which then become genuine contents and no longer just pumped-up slogans.
Cooperative systems are made up of people who associate with one another to build a community of knowledge, experiences, and practices. The objective is to build–starting from many small realities that can gain added value from reciprocal interaction that is much greater than the sum of individually expressed values–a place where people who share determined values and ideals can meet, share ideas and projects, imagine an alternative social, economic, and cultural system, and work together to realize it. All this while operating in the market in a competitive field such as organized large-scale distribution.
Which communication paradigm can be the most suitable to support this ambitious project?
Undoubtedly, today’s dominant communication model is characterized as hierarchical, transmissive and emultative.
This type of communication is at the service of the system. It increasingly isolates the individual, shapes him/her, and equalizes without valuing one’s peculiarities. In addition, it keeps people out of touch and unaware of the logic that forms the the base of the system (social, economic, political). It is a communication that favors, in other words, fragmentation, alienation, segregation, and solitude, characteristics of today’s dominant system inspired by the “divide and conquer” concept of the past.
What is the relationship between communication and identity? Speaking of products and services, good communication cannot overlook the fact that these elements as well as their use and the processes by which they were created or delivered are their story. The purpose of the story is not to deceive or persuade someone to buy or use products or services they don’t need, but to serve as orientation regarding the project and its realization, to gather possible stakeholders from the initial planning phases, and to share information with an ample pool of possible users.
The symbolic dimension and representations of the individual and collective of any aspect of reality influences the reality itself (Erving Goffman): the story about an object or communication about a certain activity can bring out useful knowledge to reorient a project, its development, or its realization.
For this reason communication that is not aligned with the identity–whether it’s the culture, vision, or mission–of the enterprise or association that expresses it will end up confusing stakeholders, creating indecision and conflict among personnel, weakening all the communication, and fragmenting them into numerous rivulets rather than reinforcing them within the context of the system.
This is even truer in the case of enterprises with a strong matrix value, such as cooperative enterprises.
Every time a cooperative distances itself from the communicative identity that distinguishes it, through traditional and consolidated tools, channels, and modes, it runs the real risk of causing degeneration of its project, stripping its mission of its nature, and losing its social personality (Toschi, 2011).
Communication for cooperative enterprises needs to be based on a vision of community dynamics in opposition to hierarchical, transmissive, and emulative strategies. Cooperative communication has to place itself at the service of the community of members and employees and, despite their different roles and tasks, it needs to ensure the participation of all subjects involved (from those who govern to those who are the most operative). On the one hand it needs to guarantee the right to be heard and, on the other, the right to receive a reply. Good cooperative communication promotes knowledge exchange that results from active and creative appropriation of processes that allow all subjects in a cooperative to feel a part of it.
We can have good training when we are able to put mechanisms into action that facilitate production with meaning and to build and generate knowledge among all involved subjects (instructors included). Thus, cooperative communication is more effective when it’s able to express processes that support development of an activity that is as intensely creative, active, and communitary as possible (Toschi, 2011). This holds true for internal communication and, even more so, for external communication.
The sociology of consumption has placed much effort on examining the emancipation of consumers–it’s sufficient to think of the term “prosumer” (Toffler, 1980)–also in relation to the spread of new technologies. This emancipation has been identified, in practice, as the antagonist resulting from a production system that constantly tries, through publicity and marketing, to persuade and convince. In post-modern society, consumers are apparently free to make their own buying decisions, but in reality an excessive selection of products is nothing more than the result of a market intent on disorienting and isolating.
For this reason, in the cooperative world it’s important to start from the concept of “member” as “user-citizen”. Good communication provides user-citizens with the tools they need to be trained and informed and, thus, able to make consumer choices that are in line with their individual and, at the same time, collective interests.
True cooperative innovation lies in activating new pacts between enterprise, citizens and territory that redefine the consumption paradigm, placing listening to the needs of the community at the center. In turn, we have a different communicative model that is oriented toward building relationships between different subjects rather than focusing on their persuasion. Only in this way can the principle of mutuality come back to life and reinforce a sense of belonging to the cooperative, and thus to the community.
For this reason, the CfGC promotes shifting communication about a product to communication within a product. This allows the interested subjects inside the communication process to be included, with the aim of satisfying commercial needs, as indicated by policies, and symbolic needs which are an expression of the characteristic values of the cooperative enterprise. In this scenario, it becomes essential to reinforce the link between commercial communication and the cooperative activity of the enterprise to more clearly characterize the cooperative’s distinctiveness among its reference public. Communication within the product starts with analysis of the needs of the stakeholders and the characteristics of the reference territory to achieve, together, cooperative planning that enriches the participation and creativity of all the subjects involved in the process.
Only in this way is it possible to nurture a community of interest, practice, and experience that works together to sustain a different model of consumption, commerce, and cooperation.