Re-imagining Producer Collectives: Strategic Conversations for a post-pandemic future
Updated: Apr 19
Well managed and governed producer collectives are organisations for the future as alternatives to existing investor-owned firms that increase inequality even as they increase wealth. A gathering of management scholars and development practitioners highlights new knowledge and insights on producer organisations that could hopefully correct the scant attention to this domain of inquiry by strategic management scholars.
Exploring alternative management paradigms
As business organisations, member-owned collectives have received little attention from strategic management scholars. Successful cooperatives like Amul (the brand of the Gujarat Milk Marketing Cooperative Federation Limited) have been seen more as agribusinesses with impressive growth and marketing capabilities and much less for their business models that allow, to use the ex-Managing Director of GCMMF, Dr R S Sodhi, for providing ‘value for many and value for money’. As member-owned, people-centred, and value-based enterprises, cooperatives are potentially better vehicles for promoting equality and inclusive economic development. Cooperatives have shown greater resilience during crises like the pandemic and have withstood shocks and carried on their businesses despite widespread disruption. However, despite leads from a few management scholars like Paul Adler, who urged to explore management paradigms beyond profit maximization the responses from management schools have been weak. Business schools have been ‘followers rather than leaders’ and slow to change despite several experiments on business with purpose.
The 24th Annual Convention of the Strategic Management Forum from 21-23 December 2022 at the Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA) on the theme “Re-building organizations: Strategic conversations for a post-pandemic world” provided a great opportunity to explore alternative economic systems beyond the investor-owned firm and take stock of the future of collective enterprises like, and beyond, Amul. Some of the questions that scholars were invited to explore included: How can inclusion and equity in governance be hardwired into the design of the enterprise? How do we rethink the rural, - as a market for goods and services, a temporary sink for recovery, a space for renewal, or an opportunity to transform relations and rebuild a better India and the world? How do we better manage our producer collectives (cooperatives and producer companies)?
Reimagining Producer Collectives as learning organisations
The track on “reimagining producer collectives” (RPC) invited empirically grounded and theoretical submissions on the broad theme of governance and management of producer organisations. The discussions also spanned policies and ecosystems that could support these organisations as autonomous business enterprises.
The track was building on IRMA’s work on producer collectives over the years and the intensive efforts by the Living Farm Incomes team to actively engage the academia to work closely with practitioners promoting Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs). The Fields of Change (Prasad and Dutta 2022) volume and a larger set of thirty-eight blogs in the last 2-3 years were in a sense exploration of these questions during the pandemic. Authors of the fifteen FPOs whose case studies are part of a forthcoming volume, Farming Futures: Reimagining Producer Organisations in India” were encouraged to think beyond their particular cases exploring cross-cutting themes even as some of the leading academics who study FPOs such as Prof. Sukhpal Singh (Indian Institute of Management - Ahmedabad), Prof. Annapurna Neti (Azim Premji University) and development practitioners involved in the nitty gritty of execution who face the challenges of building alternate institutions were pro-actively encouraged to participate in the event.
The RPC track received many submissions and twenty-three of them were presented across four broad themes viz. assessing producer collectives (7 papers), building inclusive institutions (6 papers), new knowledge on producer collectives (5 papers), and rethinking FPO policy (5 papers). Senior development practitioners explored many issues on policies and ecosystems and were willing to continue with their papers through blogs that explored the legal dimensions of FPOs and the regulatory bondage, promoting agencies support in a state with several FPOs like Uttar Pradesh, the need for a different architecture in rainfed areas, newer business models for FPOs and the need for larger Type 2 institutions in the FPO ecosystem. The conversations among scholars led to further explorations like understanding the governance of these member-based institutions through their AGM.
Bridging boundaries in Strategic management
The conversations in the RPC theme and similar conversations between academia and practitioners, (industry more broadly defined) in other themes like “rethinking enterprises”, were important for four reasons. First, to create an incipient community of practice where ideas are exchanged beyond a conference. A WhatsApp group originally created for managing logistics continued beyond the conference with participants freely sharing their full papers and presentations and other work for comments, suggestions and leading to further dialogues.
Second, academic institutions need to pro-actively explore their role in facilitating innovative knowledge platforms that are non-hierarchical and inclusive with participation of academics with years of experience, graduate students and practitioners where ideas are shared and reflected upon. The typical form of academic publications in journals with limited access to a wider audience need not be the only contribution of the academia whose role in facilitating knowledge dialogues is underrated. Third, is the exploration of several intersectionalities such as gender issues in producer collectives and assessing performance of hybrid organisations. The conference has interesting papers on these themes including rich conversations and disagreements too. It was also heartening to see at least three papers that were both engaging with the design framework of cooperatives by Tushaar Shah in the 1990s (Shah 1996) even as they extended it to non-perennial agricultural commodities (beyond milk or dairy). Newer insights on the management and governance of these institutions emerged including the application of stakeholder theories and frameworks.
Finally, industry or practitioner forums tend to be celebratory and are uncritical of existing paradigms of management or government policies. A pro-active exploration of alternative economic systems with an Indian context is critical for the challenges that the world faces today. Leading theoretical contributions on cooperatives or producer organisations from developing countries often are quite divorced from the Indian context of small holder farmers and the increasing feminisation of agriculture. Taking forward the discussions that emerged during the Convention, we hope that future SMF conferences would build on the exploration of ideas and strategic conversations that emerged at IRMA in December 2022. As articulated through the interviews with management thinkers by Hector Rocha and others, business must serve the needs of humanity rather than the needs of business. Business schools have to move beyond narrow parameters of efficiency and focus on addressing more fundamental questions of the human condition.
C Shambu Prasad is a Professor of Strategic Management and Social Sciences at the Institute of Rural Management Anand and coordinates the LFI project
Abhishek Saxena is a Research Fellow at the Living Farm Incomes (LFI) Project and also pursuing his doctoral research at IRMA.