"Skills Network is different from the other charities I’ve worked at. Here I’m not the ‘expert’ telling people in difficult situations what to do. Here we see each other as equals. I’ve had the opportunity to change myself …and as a group we change ourselves from the inside and we change our understanding of each other."
Skills Network is not a ‘service’ – it is not about one group of people who have resources or qualifications doing things to or for another group of people who need ‘help’. We have found that such services, even when they intend to be helpful, can leave people feeling powerless and patronised.
When we started Skills Network we wanted to try doing things differently. We wanted the organisation to be responsive and relevant to people’s lives – and for that to happen, for us to grow and thrive, we need everyone involved to have input - we need everyone to contribute to decisions and activities and to understand and be committed to our way of working.
People with knowledge and abilities gained through ‘professional’ experience and qualifications collaborate on an equal level with people whose knowledge and skills have been gained elsewhere to build something that is different and works for everyone. This takes time and is very challenging – but we firmly believe it is the right way to go.
Part of what is important about this way of working is acknowledging that we didn't create it and don't own it. We have been taught by and learned from many people and groups, such as these, and are just trying to do our best to contribute to the collective knowledge.
What does ‘working cooperatively’ mean at Skills Network?
Cooperative working is not just about working well together as a group - though it does require the same kinds of listening and communication skills. It is about working in a way that actively seeks to accommodate and include everyone's working preferences and needs. It is about shared principles, shared motivations and working towards shared goals. We understand ‘working cooperatively’ as working in a more horizontal way, avoiding ‘top-down’ power structures.
Everyone has decision-making power and is expected to engage in decision-making
I was like a mouse, never wanting to raise my voice. But everyone kept encouraging me and then slowly, slowly I found my voice. Sometimes we would just decide small decisions together – what shall we have for lunch. But even this was something …
- From the beginning, course participants have group meetings and decide with facilitators practicalities such as timings and lunch arrangements.
- Group members who have completed group decision-making training attend monthly collective meetings to make day to day organisational decisions and share information.
- We are working towards participatory budgeting – by next financial year, all group members will have opportunities to input on decisions about how money is spent.
- After completion of Cooperative Working training, members can join our training, research and campaigning, community skill-sharing or enterprise working groups, and have equal decision-making in these core areas.
- We use a variety of methods to make sure that discussions and decision-making are truly inclusive (not left to those who ‘shout loudest’). These include lots of small group and paired discussion, anonymous voting, go arounds where everyone gives their opinion and ensuring everyone who wants it has sufficient time to reflect on issues.
At first I was like “oh my god! What is this? How can this work? Who is the boss?” I felt like they are crazy listening to everyone. But when I understood it, everything made sense ... when we decide things together … it breaks those lines. It's a very good way.
Leadership and responsibility are shared. Leadership is fluid and moves between people in the group.
- If someone has a particular skill, knowledge or interest, or their own project idea, they are supported to take the lead on this aspect of work. For example, some of the women in the group were working towards a level 3 childcare qualification and have taken the lead with our crèche activities.
- Right now, more leadership than we’d like rests with a few individuals. This is changing, however, as more people gain confidence and familiarity with Skills Network.
- Everyone’s role and contributions are equally valued, and everyone’s knowledge and ‘expertise’ are equally valued.
- We have a flat pay rate.
- We try where possible to distribute paid work as much as possible between group members rather than concentrating it in the hands of a few people.
- Everyone is offered paid, supported work experience after they have completed the 6 months training, (including cooperative working training)
- We see everyone who is part of Skills Network as a group member. No-one has a formal title which ranks them as more important than anyone else. We know that informal hierarchies are impossible to avoid, but we do training on and think about how to guard against their negative effects.
- We work hard to maintain an atmosphere where everyone contributes what they can and the group tries to give everyone what they need. We appreciate and value the wide range of skills and abilities that all members bring – often these are not valued as highly as we feel they should be in society.
- There are many ways you can contribute when you join Skills Network; helping keep the space clean, volunteering at Community Skill-sharing days, making tea for someone who has had a bad morning, trying out some of our learning game ideas with your children and reporting back, helping facilitate a session...all this and much more are what makes the organisation work.
It's really helping me learn how to build and keep close relationships with people. I've struggled with that in the past
We support each other
- Longer-term members get training in peer support skills and are encouraged to support others – through noticing how they are, having a chat and being a listening ear when necessary.
- Group members who have completed courses are asked to support new joiners with tasks and activities such as making learning games.
- We are working towards a co-supervision structure so that longer-term members (including some mothers who were participants on our first courses) supervise each other’s work. This is instead of using a top-down managerial structure.
Different views and needs are acknowledged and engaged with
- Everyone is expected to think about and question their own worldviews and be open to other people’s worldviews.
- We carry out training on this, and take very seriously the idea of treating each other like equals, and acting like equals.
- We realise that often conflicts arise when different world views resulting from different experiences in the world clash. We have developed structures to try and work through such differences together, even if it feels uncomfortable. Only in very extreme circumstances would a member be asked to permanently leave the group. It hasn’t happened yet.
I see things from a different perspective. I can literally say I have come away and I can see this and that, that I couldn’t see before... Collective decision making structures force us to step down from that high horse and accept that both sides may not be 100 percent right but also have really valid points.
Why do we want to work cooperatively?
- Ethical reasons: Cooperative working lives up to our core values of equality, shared power and inclusivity.
- Political reasons: Cooperative working challenges the way society is currently organised. Usually a few people at the top of the hierarchy have all decision making power, and benefit disproportionally from the fruits of the organisation.
- Practical reasons: We believe that the most effective work and best ideas come when everyone is involved. Our experience has shown us how excluding and undervaluing some over others hurts individuals and in the end undermines the group.
- Working this way also has the potential to transform how people see themselves – it can make people feel they have the ability to shape their own futures and make positive change.
- Working in this way is not easy. Skills Network is a relatively new organisation and we are still learning and developing how we work. We would love to hear and learn from other organisations trying to do something similar, as well as share our experiences. Please get in touch if you would like to discuss!