In a joint interview with Professor David Grayson, Melody McLaren, and Heiko Spitzeck, we discussed their new book, Social Intrapreneurism and All That Jazz: How Business Innovators are Helping to Build a More Sustainable World. Distilling insights from interviews with social intrapreneurs, their colleagues and experts from around the world, the authors bring to life how business can be about more than just maximizing profit.
Professor David Grayson CBE is Professor of Corporate Responsibility and Director of the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility at the Cranfield School of Management in the UK. Melody McLaren is Co-founding Director of McLaren UK, a creative business services consultancy, and is an Associate of the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility at Cranfield School of Management. Heiko Spitzeck is professor at Fundação Dom Cabral in Brazil where he teaches strategy & sustainability to senior executives.
RK: What inspired you to write this book, and why now?
DG, MM, HS: To us, the work of social intrapreneurs and their colleagues embodies the best of what businesses can be – creators of both commercial value that sustains them and also social value that helps to sustain the world at large by addressing its biggest challenges.
The three of us have been investigating social intrapreneurism for five years now as part of a wider research agenda examining how companies engage their employees with sustainability issues as well as how innovation emerges in responsible companies. Over the course of our interviews with over 40 social intrapreneurs and their colleagues around the world, we have been humbled and inspired by their commitment and creativity. We wanted to build awareness of the idea that if you want to be a force for positive change in the world, you can do it from inside large companies. Indeed, this is a potentially very fruitful way to have a positive impact because, working with others (as jazz musicians do in an ensemble) you can harness resources on a much larger scale than trying to change the world by “soloing” on your own.
With so many urgent global challenges emerging – including over-population, poverty and inequality of access to financial, educational, nutritional and environmental resources, ill-health, political conflict – we felt that a manifesto for social intrapreneurs and for those inside and outside companies who want to encourage them is needed now, more than ever.
RK: How would you describe a social intrapraneur, and what are their defining characteristics?
DG, MM, HS: We define social intrapreneurs as ‘people within a large corporation who take direct initiative for innovations that address social or environmental challenges while also creating commercial value for the company’. Social intrapreneurs are typically, “going against the grain,” challenging their organisation, questioning the status quo to develop and implement commercially attractive sustainability solutions. Hence another description: ‘corporate provocateurs’. Often, at least initially, their intrapreneurial activity is not part of their job. This is why some social intrapreneurs talk of their day job and their job that they do in their spare time at weekends and night-time: ‘moonlighting’ for their own employer! We think the distinctive features of social intrapreneurs are that they:
- Work for for-profit enterprises
- Treat social or environmental problems as business opportunities
- Drive innovations that create value for business and society
The value of studying social intrapreneurs lies in their potential to develop solutions to our global challenges by virtue of their positions in organisations that manage significant resources and power. Social intrapreneur Gib Bulloch at Accenture explains: ‘Affecting even small change in large organisations can lead to significant positive social impact’.
The principles and values of the majority of social intrapreneurs we interviewed centre on societal value creation, such as preserving nature and serving others. Social intrapreneurs have overcome the traditional dichotomy of thinking either in business or in societal terms. They are very comfortable creating what Michael Porter calls “shared value” – simultaneously for business and society. Many of our interviewees struggled with a corporate environment that either placed their ideas in a philanthropy or business field. They, however, were able to articulate how their ideas can integrate both business and societal goals to a business audience.
Social intrapreneurs demonstrated some dominant behaviors in the process of becoming aware of societal challenges and in their approach to resolving them. Three behaviors were most common: persistency and self-belief, learning, and outreach.
The common skills we recognized among social intrapreneurs were entrepreneurship and communications—both together created the necessary trust that social intrapreneurs need to earn in order to pursue their ideas internally.
Other specialist technical skills in fields such as IT and engineering appear to have aided a number of our subjects in preparing an in-depth business case for action, designing or implementing a project.
Social intrapreneurs also appear particularly skilled at working in partnership with other organisations; this can be the key to establishing credibility and gaining the expertise needed for building the business case for action on social/environment issues and to implement, or provide external validation for, social innovation programs.
Our interviewees reported numerous collaborative relationships with other parts of their business but also with NGOs, governing bodies, educational institutions and even commercial organisations, all benefiting their projects in various ways.
RK: When you talk about business innovators building a more sustainable world, are we talking about corporate social responsibility (CSR) or something much more fundamental?
DG, MM, HS: Our research is rooted in our continuing study of responsible business and corporate sustainability: how business behaves, the responsibility it takes for its social, environmental and economic impacts.
While some businesses see “corporate social responsibility” primarily as risk-mitigation, we think it is better also to think about the opportunities which emerge from increasing positive social, environmental and economic impacts. That is fundamental to the business. A decade ago we wrote about how companies can maximize “corporate social opportunities”. Successful social intrapreneurs are particularly good at spotting such opportunities because they have acquired a deep knowledge of their business and have understood, as Peter Drucker said shortly before he died, that “every social issue and global problem is a business opportunity in disguise.” If you have that perspective, then encouraging social intrapreneurism as part of a wider drive on corporate social innovation makes good business sense.
Encouraging social intrapreneurism can also be an important tool for recruiting and retaining younger employees. The 2014 Deloitte Millennials survey has revealed that Millennials want to work for organizations that foster innovative thinking, develop their skills, and make a positive contribution to society.
While most Millennials believe business is having a positive impact on society by generating jobs (46 percent) and increasing prosperity (71 percent), they think business can do much more to address society’s challenges in the areas of most concern: resource scarcity (56 percent), climate change (55 percent) and income equality (49 percent). Additionally, 50 percent of Millennials surveyed want to work for a business with ethical practices. Millennials want to work for organizations that support innovation: 78 percent of Millennials were strongly influenced by how innovative a company was when deciding if they wanted to work there, but most say their current employer does not encourage them to think creatively. Almost one in four Millennials are ‘asking for a chance’ to show their leadership skills. Additionally, 50 percent believe their organizations could do more to develop future leaders. All of this speaks to businesses encouraging their potential social intrapreneurs.
But there is more. As our research has progressed, it has become evident that in several companies we studied, social intrapreneurism reflects new emerging business models that incorporate wider definitions of “value” beyond purely financial returns. Ultimately we envision that social intrapreneurism could not only transform specific practices in corporate responsibility and sustainability, innovation and recruitment and retention, but a gateway to an entirely different way of doing business.
RK: What are some examples of these social innovators in action–whether here in the United States, Latin America, Africa, India or otherwise–and why do you believe they’ve been so successful in their ventures?
DG, MM, HS: We have met social intrapreneurs in a wide range of companies operating on every continent.
- Allianz are creating micro-insurance products for low-income people and businesses unable to afford conventional insurance schemes in Asia, Africa and Latin America;
- DHL – one of the world’s largest parcel delivery corporations – improved its operational efficiency while ameliorating climate change impacts for their clients;
- Brewing company SABMiller partnered with local growers to reduce its Zambian brewery’s production costs whilst helping small-scale farmers to improve their productivity and their livelihoods;
- E.ON Energie developed micro-energy projects to boost productivity and address poverty in developing countries;
- German engineering company Siemens introduced ‘sustainable IT’ service streams to improve cost-efficiency of its own operations and also offered citizens easier access to public services, enabling them to engage with others on topics of mutual interest and become politically active;
- Paving supplier Marshalls launched the industry’s first ethically produced sustainable product lines through partnership with its Indian supplier and a local NGO;
- Engineering consultancy Arup established a commercially viable business unit to address poverty in developing countries;
- Global insurance provider Marsh devised specialty risk reinsurance products focused on climate change and carbon trading exposures;
- Courier delivery company TNT Express used GPS technology to get parcels delivered to slum dwellers without conventional postal addresses;
- Healthcare products company Novartis developed commercially sustainable ways to market pharmaceutical products to low-income customers in developing countries.
RK: Are these social innovators rewriting the rules of what it means to be a corporate citizen?
DG, MM, HS: We certainly think these social intrapreneurs are showing how business can do well by doing good. Let’s be clear: social intrapreneurism is not some magic bullet solution to the world’s problems or “how to succeed in business in one easy lesson!” First of all, it is tough to be a social intrapreneurs, just as it is tough to be an entrepreneur. It is not for everyone. It is certainly not for the faint-hearted or people who want an easy life. We believe, however, that social intrapreneurism can be one important strand for businesses that want to create shared value and be more innovative.
Without wishing to be too dramatic, we do believe that social intrapreneurs could be paving the way, showing us some early signs of some new ways of doing business.
We believe that social intrapreneurs represent the leading wave of a business transformation movement that could go ‘viral’ if companies are prepared to invest time and resources in their own ‘enabling environments’ for social intrapreneurism, join up their efforts in corporate responsibility coalitions, and work with governments and NGOs to achieve shared value for the benefit of their businesses as well as the wider societies in which they operate.
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