An exploration of the relationship between openness to relationality and context in Irish credit unions

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Byrne, Noreen
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University College Cork
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The purpose of this thesis is to explore how contextual conditions such as perceived openness and proximity trigger a relational openness between the member and the credit union. The researcher theorises, using the relationality literature, that this openness is essential for the emergence of co-operative potentiality and, in turn, the continual reproduction of the credit union as a co-operative business. The relationship between context and relational openness was explored through the gathering of empirical data and through theoretical abduction and retroduction. The empirical field work was carried out between 2011 and 2013, a period prior to the restructuring in Irish credit unions (in 2011 there were 403 credit unions, but following the onset of a statutory supported restructuring in 2013, this number had reduced to 268 by December, 2017). The research involved two member surveys (n = 1,400; n = 715) in addition to a structured interview and a mapping exercise with 78 credit union personnel (staff and volunteers). The field work explored openness to relationality (member value preferences, member openness to relational engagement, credit union openness to member knowledge) and contextual conditions (proximity and perceived credit union openness). The first contextual condition examined was proximity. It was found that proximity matters in terms of triggering openness in both the member and the credit union. For the member, proximity triggers their likelihood of holding a relational rather than a technical value preference for their credit union. Members who value the relational over the technical are more active patrons. For the credit union, proximity influences the personnel’s openness to member knowledge (a pre-cursor to treating members as ‘origins of action’ and to member-driven innovation). The second contextual condition examined was members’ perception of credit union openness. It was found that members who perceived the credit union as open were more likely to be themselves open to relational engagement (a pre-cursor to ‘mutual aid’ or co-creation) with the credit union. Hence, relational openness matters to the development of the credit union as an innovative and member-driven co-operative business. Context matters because of its role in shaping this relational openness. This thesis highlights that credit unions already have, in fact, control over the design of that context in the form of their proximity and openness to the member. These findings indicate that, in the pre-restructuring period, relational openness between the member and the credit union existed and this openness is triggered by contextual conditions such as proximity and perceived openness. These findings imply that, in the absence of or weakening of proximity, openness is less likely to emerge. This has serious implications for the credit union. Firstly, it weakens the relational competitive advantage of the credit union. As relational openness weakens, members are more likely to hold a technical value preference and are less likely to be open to active patronage and co-creation with their credit union. Secondly, it weakens the innovative potential of credit unions, where credit unions are less open to and have less access to member knowledge. These findings suggest that this will weaken the foundational structure of the credit union as a co-operative business. The research highlights the importance of proximity as a triggering contextual condition at a time when the value of proximity and the implications of its loss do not seem to be recognised either in the restructuring literature or in practice. However, the findings also suggest that even with such recognition, it is difficult to see what type of intervention would facilitate the emergence of such relational potentiality or counteract its loss within a centralised restructuring framework. This research suggests that there may be an alternative and makes a case from the membership perspective for a formal decentralised federated-based restructuring of credit unions rather than a centralised merger-based restructuring, as the former, unlike the latter, maintains proximity while building scale. The primary methodological and theoretical contribution of this thesis lies in its relational ontology as applied to a co-operative setting. This allows for a direct focus on context and on the underlying relational process (rather than on relational outcomes) which are often implicit or background variables in co-operative research. This facilitates a deeper and more integrated understanding of co-operatives and, as argued in the thesis, sets a better foundation for the development of co-operative theory. It has been noted by other researchers that a particular gap in the co-operative research is its inability to integrate dualisms in co-operatives, such as, member/organisation; structure/process; social/economic objectives. The relational ontology as developed in this thesis enables co-operative researchers to integrate these dualisms in a more meaningful and more effortless way. This allows co-operative theory to free itself from the constraints of mere justification, comparison and ‘fitting in’ and to develop itself as a generative force innately inspired by a ‘co-operative imagination’.
Credit unions , Co-operatives , Relationality , Proximity , Restructuring
Byrne, N. 2018. An exploration of the relationship between openness to relationality and context in Irish credit unions. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.