Why we should work in the open

The Co-op Digital blog was set up almost 7 years ago, alongside the digital arm of the Co-op. Since then we’ve matured. We’ve changed our name internally several times, and we now sit as part of the Digital Technology and Data function. But ultimately, we still do the same thing: work with the wider business to help create value for Co-op by focusing on the needs of our customers, members, colleagues and communities. 

Over that time, the frequency of blog posts has changed and the tone of voice has evolved, but the blog is still an important platform for the team to work in the open. This post is about why working in the open is as important to us now as it was then.

Showing, not telling

Working in the open is not about ‘big reveals’ or PR-style spin. 

It’s about communicating in short, frequent updates. It’s about accepting that things will not always go to plan, and being comfortable about acknowledging that.

If you’re not used to working in this way, it’s scary. It can be terrifying for lots of reasons and the ones we hear a lot are:

  • What if our competitor sees our open working and steals our ideas?
  • Will I look incompetent if I admit that something didn’t go to plan?
  • I don’t have time to write about the work – I’m too busy doing the work.

They’re common worries but they come from the idea that working in the open means telling everyone every single detail. There are different levels of being open though, and working openly isn’t about sharing commercially sensitive stuff, talking about daft mistakes or churning out reams of detail for the sake of it. 

This post explains 5 reasons why it’s a good idea to work in the open.

1. It helps us own our own narrative

It’s important to have control over telling our own story. Proactively talking a little bit and regularly about the work we’re doing increases the chances of our reputation being one we can be proud of. We can help to create and influence our own reputation by sharing what we are, and what we know. The more we do that, the better our reputation becomes. It should be based on the work we do and the culture we build along the way. We are best positioned to talk about both. 

It is human nature to fill in gaps in narratives. Silence from a team leaves it at the mercy of someone else’s assumptions and although this is not malicious (it’s often subconscious), it’s dangerous because assumptions can quickly become the ‘truth’ if we’re not told otherwise. 

The New Happy’s illustration is a useful way to think about this (adapted for the context of this post).

Image shows 3 squares made up of dots. the one on the left shows the dots as different colours and underneath is captioned: our work/our thinking. the square in the  middle shows the outline of those same dots but without colour apart from a single yellow dot. it's captioned: what we see. the right-hand square has the same amount of dots but this time they're all yellow and is captioned: what we assume
Graphic to illustrate how easy it is to assume.

In other words, the more we show people, the less they have to guess.

Across various platforms including the Co-op Digital blog, we’ve been careful not to leave gaps in our story that assumptions could fill. Co-op is a gigantic, well-established, traditional business; rightly or wrongly, with each of those adjectives comes a set of assumptions. Co-op Digital was established to help Co-op thrive in the internet era so it was extra important that we began to talk about this new chapter to show everyone how we were moving forward.

2. It helps attract talent

Talking openly about our work and its challenges on the blog, on Twitter and at events has helped Co-op build a reputation as a good place for design, product and delivery people to work on things that matter.

The blog has played a huge part in recruitment: it’s helped us show what we’re doing and what we’re thinking right now which distances us from the typical recruitment site which might include rose-tinted representations of what working here is like. Our culture can be inferred from our blog posts and they’ve given potential employees a good indication of what it’s like to be part of the team – more so than a job advert ever could.

image shows a tweet from Katherine Wastell (ex head of design and customer experience at Co-op). her tweets says: Amy led one of the most impactful things we did 
, the blog.

With her guidance, it helped us recruit super talented people, influence internal teams, and reflect on our direction.

If you want to make change happen, write about it in the open.
Tweet from our former Head of Experience Strategy and Design, Katherine.

image shows a message in slack from Phil Wolstenholme that says: the blog was the reason i applied to/got interested in working at co-op and i'm sure plenty of other people would say the same too.
Message from Lead front-end engineer, Phil, on Slack.

image show a tweet from caroline that says: also I know this is really cheezy but back when i didn't work at 
 but it was my dream job, I used to read the blog all the time and think "wow they do cool stuff, what a great place to work" and so to have my thing featured on the blog makes me really happy
Tweet from our former software engineer, Caroline Hatwell.

3. It helps us build trust

Working in the open – particularly on the blog – has helped us build trust between ourselves and our colleagues, stakeholders, community and customers. It has meant we’ve been able to show our work while it is in progress, including the things we’re finding difficult and the things that haven’t gone to plan. This authenticity has gone a long way towards building trust because, in contrast, many companies only publish slick, polished PR which can feel a bit too shiny to be an honest reflection of what’s happening. 

It’s reassuring to see the more human side of an organisation. People tend to respect those who are humble, who show they are thinking, admit they don’t know everything, but are committed to learning.

We choose to put our authentic collective self out there and be vulnerable because this is the behaviour that we encourage. And as research professor Brene Brown says [paraphrased]: 

“In the workplace, if there is no vulnerability, there’s no creativity. If there’s no tolerance for failure, there’s no innovation…” 

4. It helps create a community

Blogging and tweeting have helped us find people and teams who are working on similar things in other organisations. It has also helped people from other organisations find us too. For example, Jamie Kane published a post about how a voice user interface could help our colleagues in Funeralcare, and user researcher Mirabai asked us for advice – she was looking at the user experience of registering a death on a council’s website.

image shows a direct message in twitter from mirabai to jamie. she says: i'm a user researcher at croydon council and i just read your blog post. i'm planning and designing a research to understand users' experience in registering a death through our website. i was doing some reading about this sensitive topic and carrying out research on it. do you have any advice or things i should know?
Twitter conversation between an external user researcher, Mirabai and Co-op user researcher, Jamie.

When Jamie and Mirabai spoke they learnt from each other – the conversation was mutually beneficial. However, talking about a subject openly makes us visible and it positions us as experts by default and communities build around this. (We’ve spoken about our Funeralcare work here). This has happened with many posts but memorably on accessibility, design systems, and our mental health meet-ups.

5. It makes governance easier

Show and tells, weeknotes, and blog posts are all ways of working in the open but depending on the situation, we don’t always refer to the methods in those terms. However, we do always look for opportunities to get our work (and our plans for what’s next) under the noses of people with expertise in other parts of Co-op, beyond our immediate team. We’ve had some success but this one is dependent on creating the conditions where these become the right touch points for decision makers. It takes time and we constantly work on this.  

In theory though – and we’ve seen this to varying degrees – working in the open can help with governance because: 

  1. Stakeholders have regular opportunities to informally feed back any concerns and flag things that may become a problem later on. It means we are far less likely to spend too much time or money pursuing something that isn’t viable. 
  2. A more collaborative approach increases empathy and understanding between us and our stakeholders. Show and tells, weeknotes and blog posts help us involve them from the start and earn their trust. Working in this way means governance can be less arduous and lighter-touch than it might be if our siloed team built something and submitted it to a formal reporting process for a panel of gatekeepers to run checks on something they haven’t seen before.

👑 Long live our blog

I recently left Co-op, but the team knows the value of the blog and is determined that it will continue. The keys to the blog will sit with Head of Content Hannah Horton for now and you can read my blogging guidance to find out more about the process.

Amy McNichol

Introducing the Digital Operations team

On the Co-op Digital blog we’ve spoken a lot about the products and services we’re working on like Membership, our new coop.co.uk site and location finder. We’ve spoken less about the Digital Operations team and the work it does before those products and services can be made available to the world.

Time for an intro?

We recently did a show and tell over in Federation but for those who couldn’t make it, here’s what we spoke about.

Photo shows a group of colleagues watching the Digital Operations team show and tells.

The Digital Operations team’s responsibilities

The Digital Operations team looks after 3 things:

  1. Service management.
  2. Platform infrastructure.
  3. IT security.

The role we play differs for each area of work. For example, for Membership our role is to run the live service and its infrastructure, whereas for location finder we’re supporting the team while they run things themselves. Sometimes, our role is more about helping teams who are designing new services to think about how they’ll be operated and made secure during their life cycle, right from the early idea through to being live.

How we support teams

Photo shows 4 members of the Digital Operations team at their show and tell.

The Digital Operations team doesn’t take on development, support or responsibility for running new services. These things fall under a product or service team’s remit and we advise them. When teams need platform or operations engineers to build and run something, we help them find the people and resources they need.

We help Digital and Group work together

Co-op Digital is only one part of the Co-op, so it’s important that the work we do is in line with the wider policies. We help digital and non-digital people work together by translating Group policies into something accessible for digital teams to work from, and by helping Group colleagues understand how agile ways of working can support the policies.

Saving teams time by creating patterns

A really important part of our role is to build a set of patterns and ways of working that will help teams build things that are secure, reliable and scalable and perform well. We’re still in the early stages but the plan is that using the patterns will help teams make sure their product or service has security controls, disaster recovery, monitoring, alerting, a way for users to tell us about issues, and a support route to get those bugs to the developers.

The patterns are being built around Co-op policies such as our security and data protection policy, which means that if a team uses one to build they will have ticked most of the security policy checkboxes.

Ready for public consumption?

We’re also the keepers of the ‘readiness checklists’ – a list of things that need to be in place before teams make something new publicly available. Points on the checklist includes whether an alpha is publicly accessible; whether it captures colleague, member or customer data and if it integrates with any internal Co-op systems. The checklists aren’t a hoop to jump through just before a service goes live – teams need to start thinking about being production-ready right from alpha phase.

Working on something new? Tell us all about it!

Our big message to teams at our show and tell was: if you’re working on something new, involve us as early as possible. This way we can share any patterns and technology that might help you work more efficiently. There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel each time we build something new. If we’ve got something that works – your team can just reuse it.

Coming to us early usually means we can pick up any problems and point out anything on our checklist that your product or service might not meet much earlier. That’ll mean we won’t have to delay anything.

Another place we can help is if you’re thinking of subscribing to an online service or purchasing a product. Maybe you are thinking of starting a new blog, creating a wiki, using a productivity tool or anything else that will help you with your job – you should make sure you speak to us to find out if it needs review or if there is a suitable product already available.

Come and say hi

We have a regular ‘surgery’ on the sixth floor in Federation House at 11am on Tuesdays. We also have a Slack channel or drop us an email on digitaloperations@coopdigital.co.uk

Michaela Kurkiewicz
Principal service manager

Steve Foreshew-Cain: paying £9 million to local causes and hosting our first digital operations show and tell

Steve: Hello and welcome to the weekly Digital update. Now the eagle-eyed amongst you will recognise that I’m not Mike Bracken but given that I have shaved my beard off for Easter this week you might also not recognise who I am. So, I’m Steve Foreshew-Cain and I’m the Chief Operating Officer for the Digital group.

As is the tradition in these updates we start with a big number and it’s important big number this week because this week marked the day that we gave away £9 million to our community local causes nominated by our members.

And there’s another big number associated with membership this week which is that we have welcomed 800,000 new members to the Co-op since we launched our renewed membership proposition. An impressive achievement by any standard.

The other important thing to call out for those of you who are interested in the community work that we do is an opportunity to get directly involved in that by joining as a Member Pioneer. The deadline for that, to sign up, for that is the 26th of this month so less than a week away, but if you’re a colleague or if you’re a member of the Co-op you still have an opportunity to join that important work.

Another important activity this week was the first of our digital operations show and tells where we talked about platforms, we talked about service management and we talked about security and how those capabilities form a part of the digital services that we deliver and we operate.

And as is also traditional in our weekly update we say a big hello to new members of the Digital Team to a big shout out to Ian Thomas and Michael Davis who’ve joined our data team and a big hello to Debbie Roycroft who’s joined as a software engineer in our digital engineering practice.

And of those of you who are watching this because you’re interested in the work that we’re doing here at the Co-op as ever the opportunity to come and join us exists so please look at all of the opportunities that we have out there and get in contact.

Steve Foreshew-Cain
Digital Chief Operating Officer

Show & tells at Co-op

As we talk more and more about the products and services that we’re building at Co-op, lots of people have been asking us how they can find out more about them.

For each of the digital products and services that we’re working on we have regular show & tells.

What’s a show & tell?

It’s an opportunity to hear what the teams have been working on that week, what they’ve learned, and what’s coming next. It’s also where you’ll see working demos of what they’re building. We want as many people to come to them and to ask really difficult questions – the harder the better.

Picture of a recent show & tell
One of our recent show & tells

All colleagues and council members are welcome. They’re all held in our support centre at 1 Angel Square in Manchester, but we’re testing different ways to make them more accessible.

Here’s the list of what, when and where. We’ll update this post if they change and add any new ones.

Wednesdays, 6th floor auditorium, Federation House. 10.15-10.50am

Food alphas 
Tuesdays, 3rd floor, Federation House. 11.00-12.00

Every 2nd and 4th Tuesday, 12th floor, 1AS. 2.30-3.00pm

Every 2nd and 4th Thursday, 13th Floor, 1AS. 9.30 – 10.00am


If you have any questions, please comment on the blog or send us a Tweet

Gail Lyon

Introducing Co-op Paperfree

Hello, I’m Tom, and I’m the Chief Product Engineer at CoopDigital. That means I do a bit of writing code, a bit of design and a bit of pointing at whiteboards. I’ve been here since January, and it’s been an incredible first six months. There’s a brilliant, excited team here, and I’m proud to be part of it.

You might have seen Mike’s speech from our AGM, where he set out our ambition to be, amongst other things, trusted with your data. That’s a big topic and no small feat, but we’ve been working on an experiment to help us understand what it might take.

If you’re anything like me there’s a lot of paper in your life. It just keeps turning up: envelopes full of bills, bank statements, notifications about pensions, and so on.

Often they go straight in the recycling, but sometimes I keep things around because I *might* need to refer to them again in the future. So they get thrown into heaps and piles that move slowly from the kitchen to the stairs to the attic.

Many of the people we’ve spoken to in our research feel overwhelmed by their documents: information is never to hand when they need it, things get lost, and they take up loads of room.

We think we can help, with a simple, secure app to help you go paperless. Our working title is Co-op Paperfree.


You get your documents into Paperfree by scanning them with your phone’s camera. We make the contents of the scanned photos searchable using character recognition, so you can always find what you’re looking for without needing to organise too neatly ahead of time.

But Paperfree isn’t just for storage. We’re exploring ways of to make your life easier with automatic reminders for expiry dates, and ways of safely sharing with housemates, for example.

And of course, these important documents are increasingly digital, so we’ll be supporting those equally.

For most people this is some of the most sensitive data they hold, and we’re very aware of the security and privacy risks, both technical and social. We’re working alongside Sarah Gold and her team at IF, to ensure we put our users in control of their data. We’ll talk more about this in a later post.


So that’s a quick introduction to Co-op Paperfree. It’s the first prototype we’re developing in this area, and we’re excited to have a handful of our colleagues testing it right now. (Gulp!)

If you’re interested in working on this, or products like it, we’re hiring engineers, designers and user researchers.

If you are a colleague or a council member and want to find out more you can join us at our regular show and tell which is every other Tuesday 9.30 on the 10th Floor of 1 Angel Square. The next one is the 19th July, hope to see lots of people there.

Tom Taylor