Creating an Organising Space at UNISON – Case Study

The UK’s largest public service union UNISON recently launched tessello – individually branded as Organising Space – as a next gen LMS connecting their army of activists working throughout the public sector.
Check out the full story of this unique initiative below, described by UNISON’s General Secretary as ‘cutting edge trade unionism’.

UNISON is the 2nd largest trade union in the UK with almost 1.3 million members. It was formed in 1993 when 3 public sector trade unions, the National and Local Government Officers association, the National Union of Public Employees and the Confederation of Health Service Employees merged.

Members of UNISON are typically from industries within the public sector and generally cover both full-time and part-time support and administrative staff. The majority of people joining UNISON would be workers within areas such as local government, education, the National Health Service Registered Nurses, NHS Managers & Clinical Support Workers.

The union also admits ancillary staff such as Health Care Assistants and Assistant Practitioners, including Allied Health Professionals, probation services, police services, utilities (such as gas, electricity and water), and transport. These ‘Service Groups’ all have their own national and regional democratic structures within UNISON’s constitution.

Each branch is run by an annually elected committee of members which holds regular meetings, including an annual general meeting for all members to attend. Branches elect delegates to the union’s annual National Delegate Conference (held in June every year), the supreme body within the union’s constitution with responsibility for setting the union’s policies for the forthcoming year.

Identifying fragmentation and isolation was the most important strategic organising challenge facing UNISON in their 2014 annual report.

UNISON employs around 1,200 people across the UK to support and represent their 1.3 million members. Not only are they spread across a diverse range of workplaces, with some having perhaps just one member, they are also geographically dispersed across the length and breadth of the country. UNISON has more than 1,200 branches, split into 12 regions covering the whole of the UK.

This fragmented structure posed a crucial question and challenge for UNISON. Some of these challenges – and the opportunities they give rise to – are described in this video with UNISON’s Assistant General Secretary Roger McKenzie:

The UNISON community is organised by staff and activists. Crucial to growth and sustainability, activists are members who volunteer to take up a more active role in representing the union. Not only do they deal with their day-to-day roles, they also act as a gateway between staff and members, between members themselves, and between other union reps and the national organisation.

In order for them to do this with greater ease and success, UNISON recognised the need for an innovative development in the way they learn, share knowledge and establish organisational unity across a physically divided community.

The Organising Space concept was conceived in response to the need to provide an all-inclusive space, and a platform for UNISON staff and activists to:

  • Increase the amount and quality of organising carried out by UNISON.
  • Deliver a solution enabling activists and staff to connect, learn, research and share organising knowledge, best practices and experiences.
  • Build a collaborative learning and organising community.
  • Empower activists to organise (from beginner to expert).
  • Encourage an open and ongoing dialogue across the activist community.

Furthermore, the chosen solution needed to be: Innovative flexible, social, inclusive, dynamic, user-friendly, interactive, and engaging.

UNISON joined Brightwave to pioneer an online Organising Space to connect their staff and activists, all powered by the award winning total learning system tessello. Powered by the Tin Can or xAPI, tessello combines blended learning approaches to allow staff and activists to share content, experiences, and knowledge, while also providing a place to find support from within the Organising Space community.

UNISON shaped each feature of tessello to suit their unique objectives:

  • The Communities form the space for an ongoing exchange of dialogue, ideas and experiences, as well as a heightened sense of inclusion and unity.
  • My Organising Space is where staff and activists can save formal or informal learning experiences and knowledge. It also hosts Structured Learning Pathways that can take members from beginner to expert level in any given skill or discipline, through a mix of learning resources, projects, and assessments (these are all created by UNISON).
  • The latest headlines and UNISON activity can be viewed through the News feature, keeping staff and activists up to date with campaigns, events, and goings-on in the world of politics and public service.

Activist and staff training can also be provided through the content tiles, hosting a variety of useful resources which can be uploaded and shaped continually by the Organising Space community as it continues to grow and refine its mission.

Watch this video UNISON prepared during the launch phase to introduce the Organising Space to their activists, and show them how to use the new system to connect, share experiences and coordinate actions:

UNISON launched Organising Space at their National Delegate Conference, generating a huge buzz around the campaign with their presentation of the site; they achieved a number of around 700 sign-ups on the day, with excellent feedback from staff and activists alike:

‘We’ve needed something like this for years!’

‘Can’t wait to log on and take a proper look around.’

Twelve months in, activity and engagement in the Organising Space is still rising daily, with 1,300 total active learners and 10,000 completed learning resources. Brightwave and UNISON continue to work closely to ensure the Organising Space remains a vibrant online community that continues to provide real value for the union’s mission, connecting public service workers and union activists across the UK.

Top-level buy-in from senior stakeholders is crucial when deploying the new Total Learning methodologies afforded by tessello, and in this regard UNISON’s Organising Space tessello has been particularly successful:

‘The Organising Space is absolutely tremendous. It’s cutting edge trade unionism, something we should have done many years ago. It’s a great asset to our union … It’s unique in the trade union movement.’

– Dave Prentis, General Secretary, UNISON

Watch all of UNISON’s Organising Space videos on their YouTube channel here.

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