Creating Sustainable Business through Social Intrapreneurism

By Professor David Grayson, The Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility, Cranfield School of Management

Creating Sustainable Business through Social Intrapreneurism

The world needs more change-makers: men and women who don’t just see things as they are, but who imagine things as they might be – and do something about it! This last few weeks, it felt as though another category of change-maker is starting to get real traction: the social intrapreneur.

Social Intrapreneurs are people within a large corporation who take direct initiative for innovations which address social or environmental challenges profitably. They come up with ideas to reduce costs, or enhance corporate value or find new business models whilst simultaneously tackling environmental and / or social problems. Typically, they are going against the grain and may be challenging their employers.

Social Intrapreneurs are people like Jo da Silva who has created Arup International Development as a consultancy arm providing expert technical advice and practical solutions to reduce poverty and improve human, economic and environmental health in developing countries, within the giant Arup engineering business; or James Inglesby in Unilever who the director of the Clean Team project, which set up a sanitation business (a portable toilet service) serving the urban poor of Ghana.

On April 9, a consortium of organisations led by Ashoka, Imaginals and Accenture, announced the results of the first global competition to find social Intrapreneurs: the League of Intrapreneurs.

On the same day, we at the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility at the Cranfield School of Management, launched our latest research on social intrapreneurism – Creating Sustainable Business through Social Intrapreneurism – exploring the enabling environment inside companies in which social Intrapreneurs can thrive.

On the Friday, I rounded off my week with a visit to the annual Skoll World Forum on Social Enterprise at Oxford’s Said Business School, which featured a session on social intrapreneurism facilitated by the Aspen Institute’s Business and Society programme, which runs the First Movers initiative to develop the capacity of social Intrapreneurs.

Unlike social entrepreneurs, social Intrapreneurs, by definition, are working in and through large corporations. Like any entrepreneur, they can be disruptive and threatening to some people, and sometimes hard to manage. Yet the companies that can channel the energy and the drive and creativity of their “entrepreneurs within” will be tapping a vital, extra seam of ideas for new business opportunities. The best organisations already understand that not all their innovation is going to come from R&D centres and specialist New Business Development Units. They want every employee to be a virtual member of their R&D and Business Development teams!

So what are some of the things that seem to encourage social intrapreneurism?

  • Corporate leadership which is clear that sustainability is not a side-show but business critical – both for mitigating risks but also for maximising business opportunities.
  • Operational managers who are ready to give emergent social intrapreneurs “air-cover” together with sponsorship and vital scarce resources.
  • Some organisations run regular innovation competitions with funds and time for employees whose ideas are selected, to develop their ideas. The airline KLM, for example, has a Blue Skies competition. The consultancy Accenture has an innovation fund which individual employees are encouraged to bid for. Some of their national operations also run their own local versions.
  • A number of companies have experiential learning programmes which enable talented high-flyers to go and spend a few months in a different part of the world and in a different world, for example, working with one of their company’s NGO partners. The rationale for programmes like GSK’s Pulse or PwC’s Ulysees’ programme is to expose talented employees to some of the global sustainability challenges in the hope that this will stimulate their thinking and lead to commercially attractive opportunities which also address sustainability problems.
  • Some emergent social Intrapreneurs have managed their own re-assignment inside their company, to transfer into a dedicated new business models unit or the Corporate Responsibility function, where such exist, for a tour of duty, whilst they work on their idea.

Our research leads us to suggest Seven Habits for companies wishing to promote social intrapreneurism.

1. Cultivate ‘café culture’

2. Humanize your organisation to promote egalitarianism and generosity

3. Account for the social and environmental, as well as economic, value you create

4. Network inside and outside your organisation to create consortia for action

5. Grow people into leadership roles for sustainable business

6. Experiment with social intrapreneurism pilots that can be scaled up for impact

7. Strategize to achieve sustainable business and societal goals.

For further information and to download the full report, visit:

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