Ecosystem thinking has become popular among entrepreneurship advocates in the past decade. For proponents of worker cooperatives, the Cooperative Growth Ecosystem framework helps us bridge the gap between the proven benefits and growth potential of worker-owned businesses and the current reality that there are only about a dozen larger worker cooperatives (with 50 or more employees) in the U.S. today. [1]


The field of worker cooperative development is still nascent, and none of the local ecosystems to support it can be considered mature—that is, with all elements from capital to policy to business supports working together strategically to achieve such scale and density that worker cooperatives constitute a measurable part of the economy.


For us, the question is not whether a given place already has the ecosystem elements to support thriving worker cooperatives—we believe that all places have this potential—but which elements are strong in a place and how they can be used to build more capacity. The ecosystem itself does not create worker cooperatives. Entrepreneurs, whether they are individual worker-owners or cooperative developers, create worker cooperatives.


These cooperatives in turn create the ecosystem of support they need. But imagine the possibilities if these cooperatives were not solely responsible for building their supportive ecosystem. What scale might be possible if cooperative developers and entrepreneurs worked alongside other actors in a coordinated strategy to build a more favorable ecosystem for worker cooperatives?


The Cooperative Growth Ecosystem framework helps diverse local actors determine what roles they can successfully play, design effective collaborations and develop strategy with other actors, and create initiatives that will have real impact and be able to scale. The framework includes actors and elements, as well as common stages that local ecosystems may cycle through when actors are working together to pro-actively cultivate the ecosystem.

Building your Ecosystem in Stages

Developing a Cooperative Growth Ecosystem is a long-term, iterative undertaking. There is no single way to coalesce a robust ecosystem. We know that it is the Essential Elements that build worker cooperatives, but in many communities, Environmental and Important Elements such as advocacy partnerships and community awareness may be initial catalysts for ecosystem growth. While Ecosystem Elements do not fall into place in a set sequence, the process of purposeful ecosystem development seems to progress through common stages. Drawing on change management and systems innovation theory,[2] we see distinct stages of ecosystem development, which may evolve sequentially or simultaneously.


At the Convene stage, Important and Environmental Elements may be the most operative, but any set of actors and elements can lead during these early stages. Building Essential Elements will be critical to the success of the Create stage, which may actually begin alongside, or even precede, the Convene stage, as a proof-of-concept undertaking. Using strong Important and Environmental Elements to create more robust Essential Elements is crucial in the Consolidate stage. In a mature ecosystem, all elements need to be working together at a systems level, and a wide range of actors must collaborate effectively over time. It is at the Consolidate and Sustain stages that conditions for scale develop.

[1] http://institute.coop/news/us-worker-cooperatives-state-sector
[2] http://www.kotterinternational.com/the-8-step-process-for-leading-change/?gclid=CNnric6b_8kCFYVbfgodg1oCtA