Promoting Innovation – Suara, Spain’s largest services co-op

Jonathan met with Jordi Pico, Director of Innovation

In April I visited Suara, Spain’s largest services co-operative, employing over 4,000 people and with a turnover of more than 80m euros.

Based in Barcelona, Suara provides a range of care and education services across Catalonia. It was formed from a merger of three care co-operatives around 10 years ago, which realised that with competition from private sector providers there was a need to operate at a greater scale to be viable long-term.

Since then the co-operative has grown and built significant reserves (currently around 17m euros), which allowed it to survive the consequences of Spain’s financial crisis, when public bodies suspended payments owed to external service providers.

Suara is an interesting example of a services co-operative for a number of reasons:

  • Its size and ongoing success – it runs over 200 services (from early years to elderly care) mainly for public sector clients, but also for some private customers across the whole of the Catalonia region.
  • Its workforce is 90% female and is led by women – the president and director general are both women.
  • Its approach to growth – Suara has grown significantly but members took the decision not to work in other parts of Spain where the contract terms offered by the public authorities would have meant Suara would not have been able to offer staff decent terms and conditions.
  • How it partners with other organisations – Suara has created a co-operative group with other Catalan co-ops to lobby, promote co-operation and foster innovation. It is also an active member of the Catalan Co-operative Federation.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect is Suara’s approach to innovation. With 4000 people working in the co-op there is a huge pool of knowledge and ideas about how they might improve the way they work and develop new services. Innovation has been a specific priority for Suara since 2011. This began with changing the management model, making it flatter and democratising decision making at the service level. It was followed by a process to develop an innovation culture.

In 2017 Suara launched an innovation lab, which manages a pre-incubation process and an incubator, where employees are supported to develop ideas into new service offers. If the ideas are viable, they go into a development programme. Internal challenges are launched in a process which calls for solutions and runs carefully structured hackathons to work on different issues.

More recently Suara has launched a call to external tech start-ups to collaborate on developing new solutions to provide better, more efficient and competitive care services.

When I talked with Jordi Pico, Suara’s Director of Innovation, two things stood out as being really important in supporting their focus in innovation. First, Suara has been supported by Accio – a regional government agency which provides technical support to Catalan companies that want to develop innovation processes. And, most important of all, the entire senior management of the co-operative bought fully into promoting innovation and implementing the changes needed to move this agenda forward. Change can be difficult but it’s so much easier when everyone shares the same commitment.