Collaborative Organisations in the Internet Age

By Oliver Sylvester-Bradley for Enlivening Edge Magazine

Have you noticed how more and more aspects of our lives are being managed and moved online? Whether you’re ordering take-out or a taxi, or looking for a new house or job, it’s pretty hard to manage these days without resorting to a website or app.

Whether or not you’re a fan of the web, it’s hard to ignore the inexorable rise of the information age. ‘Big data’, which really just means ‘lots of information’, is being generated, gathered, managed, and processed in ways it never could have been before. Businesses built around the traditionally capitalist philosophy of extraction are morphing into sophisticated systems of surveillance to ensure they own the biggest, most effective data sets. In many instances ‘we the people’ have become their products: sets of data to be sold and traded and marketed to, through the screens to which we have become addicted.

The internet and the mobile applications it has brought us have undeniably transformed the way we organise our lives, and in many ways it has been for the better. But what does it mean for the way we work—and the organisations we work within?

From patents and licenses to digital models of our buying behaviour, the overwhelming majority of our ever-expanding digital lives is controlled by private enterprise. We can’t afford to ignore this trend toward the private ownership of everything. New, collaborative, and re-invented organisations would do well to address the global epidemic of private ownership for private gain.

Co-operative ownership has always stood as an alternative to the private ownership model. But in a digital world how can the principles and practices of the age-old co-op sector be translated and incorporated into this brave new world populated by pixels instead of people?

The answer is simple: Co-operative ownership models, principles and working practices must be embedded in the ‘operating systems’ of new, collaborative organisations. This exciting work is already happening and the term “platform co-op” has been coined to describe online marketplaces which are owned and governed by their members (see for a directory of these).

Traditional co-ops desperately need to embrace internet technology and utilise the numerous free and open-source tools available in order to stay relevant.

If they do, co-ops could easily rise to become the ‘defacto’ alternative to extractive, exploitive, and inequitable businesses. But if co-ops fail to move with the times and fail to embrace the internet era, they will become less and less relevant, more ‘niche’, and ultimately less effective.

All too often the Members and Owners of old ‘grandfather co-ops’, which have been around for decades, are not internet savvy; they do not understand the world—or the words—of the web. So they shy away, reassuring themselves that their membership is loyal and, because things have gone OK to date, they can carry on as they are, and can survive. But the world is changing. Surviving is not enough. The co-op sector has so much to offer the world; it owes its members a better experience and, importantly, a chance to help shape the future.

Getting internet-ready and embracing the digital age does not even have to be expensive. There is a growing sector of Tech Co-ops, made of geeks and developers who have grown up on the web, to whom setting up digital services for others is a delight.

Plus, utilising the latest open-source tools, designed to facilitate better collaboration, decision-making, and online transactions, offers huge time-savings and financial savings, through the efficiency of effectively-designed technology.

If you’re interested in learning more about how your organisation can benefit from collaborative web technologies, what they are, how they work and what they can do for you, Open 2017 is a two-day conference in London in February, 2017, where these topics will be discussed in detail. The conference is open to everyone and will bring together people from the worlds of tech, co-ops, and new collaborative organisations to further the discussions and provide practical guidance about how to reinvent organisations for the internet age. Book your ticket now.



Oliver Sylvester-Bradley is an ethical marketing and communications advisor. Oliver graduated from Central Saint Martins and then studied an MSc in Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales. He wrote his thesis on Encouraging Environmentally Responsible Behaviour, and specialises in communications and marketing strategies which encourage sustainability.



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