Sociotechnical Cooperatives: The Impact of Technology on Cooperative Organizations

24 Pages Posted: 17 Dec 2020

See all articles by Madelyn Sanfilippo

Madelyn Sanfilippo

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; CITP, Princeton University

Tithi Chattopadhyay

Princeton University

Date Written: December 15, 2020


Cooperative arrangements structure many collaborative activities and address diverse collective action problems and social dilemmas, often around physical, natural, human, and data resources (e.g. Sykuta & Cook, 2001). Commons governance, as shared institutions around public resources or common property, represents one cooperative arrangement that often successfully addresses governance needs in context, particularly in distributed and rural contexts (Ostrom, 2015). Similarly, technology increasingly plays an important role in addressing these challenges (Bronson & Knezevic, 2016; Hollifield & Donnermeyer, 2003). This paper explores the impact of information and communication technology (ICT) on cooperative organizations. In particular, we examine how technology addresses and creates challenges within cooperative organizations, examining: the impact of technology access and utilization on the economics of ownership; how technology impacts cooperatives’ structure and their transactional nature; and technological adoption and innovation amongst cooperatives. In the process, we explore relationships between cooperatives, as they formally associate with one another, employing network analysis to understand interactions across many economic sectors and geographic distribution.

This study includes two distinct empirical stages. The first includes high-level network analysis of interrelationships between cooperatives and characterizes cooperative organizations within the United States. The second, draws on interviews with a small subset of cooperatives, selected through a cross-sectional design between economic sector and cooperative structure, differentiating between producer, worker, consumer, purchasing or shared-service, and digital cooperatives (Vitaliano, 1983). These interviews provide insights into how technology along with other variables like exogenous governance, and constraints from geographic and economic factors influence cooperative organizational structure, as well as how they learn from one another. Interview questions were informed by the Governing Knowledge Commons (GKC) framework (e.g. Sanfilippo, Frischmann, & Strandburg, 2018).

Our results emphasize the importance of structure in shaping outcomes and interactions with ICTs. We provide an overview of cooperative organizations in the United States, illustrating patterns by sector, structure, region, and location, such as the importance of sector-based umbrella and infrastructural cooperatives in supporting coordination and communicating best technological practices to cooperatives, over regional partnerships, which exist to navigate local regulatory environments. The paper discusses unexpected opportunities and challenges with respect to technology adoption and use in organizations associated with competing interests, and how these challenges and emerging technologies shape incentives for sharing knowledge within these cooperative organizations.

Keywords: Cooperatives, governance, technological change, organizational informatics

Suggested Citation

Sanfilippo, Madelyn and Chattopadhyay, Tithi, Sociotechnical Cooperatives: The Impact of Technology on Cooperative Organizations (December 15, 2020). TPRC48: The 48th Research Conference on Communication, Information and Internet Policy, Available at SSRN: or

Madelyn Sanfilippo (Contact Author)

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign ( email )

601 E John St
Champaign, IL Champaign 61820
United States

CITP, Princeton University ( email )

22 Chambers Street
Princeton, NJ 08544-0708
United States

Tithi Chattopadhyay

Princeton University ( email )

22 Chambers Street
Princeton, NJ 08544-0708
United States

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