Aboriginal credit union successfully combines cultures

Australia’s only Indigenous-owned credit union holds lessons for the nation, according to a study from the University of Sydney Business School.

Professor Leanne Cutcher

Traditional Credit Union operates 14 branches in the Northern Territory, providing secure financial services to local communities and employing local Indigenous staff.

Professor Leanne Cutcher, a Professor of Management and Organisation Studies, said the business operates from a unique combination of practices that allow for a financial service’s audit culture and local Aboriginal kinship systems.

“I was interested in the tension – how these cultures rub up against each other and the hybrid practices that are produced when certain non-negotiable elements come into conflict,” Professor Cutcher said.

There’s an Indigenous Canadian concept called etuaptmumk, which roughly translates to ‘two-eyed seeing’ – learning to see the value in two different ways of thinking.

Professor Leanne Cutcher

“These different cultures are not always in opposition, but they do present challenges to business owners and to governments.”

One challenge faced by Traditional Credit Union was the local Aboriginal practice of communities holding all things in common, which is at odds with the idea of a private bank account.

They overcame this by honouring cultural norms, creating community accounts, and prominently displaying legal privacy information in language.

Traditional Credit Union is a unique example of an Indigenous-owned business operating in a western audit culture. Images: Traditional Credit Union

Professor Cutcher said this success had lessons for other Indigenous-owned businesses across Australia as they seek to successfully implement hybrid ways of working.

“Seeing these cross-cultural interactions as ‘friction’ means not trying to solve or dissolve them, but to acknowledge them as lived realities of an Indigenous organisation,” she said.

“Many Indigenous cultures across the globe understand everything to be connected within networks of relationships, which is true of Aboriginal Australian knowledge systems. Understanding this can help us better understand the specific conditions under which Indigenous organisations operate.”

Professor Cutcher said that recognising the success of this and other Indigenous businesses also has broader implications.

Closing the gap is dependent on Indigenous-owned businesses effectively delivering services their community needs, as no-one understands these needs better than those from their community.

Professor Leanne Cutcher

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