I was fortunate to join a discussion this month hosted by Business Fights Poverty on what social intrapreneurs can learn from social entrepreneurs. The discussion was lively and rich, and I encourage you to read it for yourself. But one fundamental question did come up in the comments that I think deserves more consideration: Why should we even be encouraging “social intrapreneurship”?
A social intrapreneur is broadly understood as an employee of a corporation who works to develop a project or initiative within the company that achieves a social good. (Obviously, there are many nuances to this definition, but let’s just leave it at that for now.) My main concern with this definition is that it assumes without this intrapreneur’s activity, the corporation could not achieve social good under its classical form of operation. Not only is this assumption becoming less and less true as corporations understand the returns of social responsibility, delineating between social intrapreneurship and other business activities creates a sense of “otherness” that may be detrimental to fostering socially-responsible business in the long run.
Labeling and growing “social intrapreneurship” can create a culture where investing in social responsibility is something beyond the scope of business as usual. The worst possible result of the social intrapreneurship movement would be to have a “social intrapreneurship” department that focuses specifically on “social intrapreneurship” projects, similar to how many corporations today have siloed “CSR departments” that operate as separate from core business practices. By developing a “social intrapreneurship” movement, I fear that instead of pushing business culture towards adopting integrated sustainability practices, we will create a second-class employee structure with one-off social intrapreneurship projects viewed by management as necessary only to improve corporate image.
It has been shown that corporations can create social and financial value by integrating social initiatives into their core business models (FSG’s “Shared Value” case studies are just a few examples of this phenomenon), so why should we create a new label and the sense of “otherness” that comes with it? Why not instead simply continue the good work of organizations like Business Fights Poverty to change corporate culture and integrate socially focused business activities at all levels of a corporation? I don’t think we need a new phrase or a new class of employee to achieve this. I think managers can just put their heads together and figure out how to achieve the best business results they can while also supporting the communities where they operate.
There is one caveat to my argument—and one that I think is very valid. To change corporate culture, you need leadership. That leadership doesn’t always come from the top. If social intrapreneurship can help lower level, under-recognized leaders create big culture changes at their companies, then codifying and sharing best practices in social intrapreneurship makes sense.
But this requires an intentional frame of reference and an understanding of end goals for sharing information and best practices. At UnSectored, we host these kinds of intentional conversations to challenge our understanding of how we create change in society. We understand that it is important to not do anything just for the sake of doing it, like one should not support social intrapreneurship only because it is a new, exciting development.
Social intrapreneurship is better than business as usual. But I don’t see the point in creating a new way of doing business, different from what we already have. It is better to simply change our motivations for doing business. This broad, values-based change is what it will take to create the more just and sustainable world we all seek.