Business-driven social change: An evidence-based framework

05.03.2013 Blog

In this guest blog, Ute Stephan, Malcolm Patterson, Ciara Kelly outline their recent research on how organisations can drive social change. 

Organisations, both small and large can play an important role in driving positive social change in today’s society. Examples range from electric utility companies helping their customers to reduce their energy consumption, grocery stores encouraging people to eat healthy food, a global consumer-goods business prevents illness and deaths through leading a culture-change on hand-washing, to social enterprises empowering disadvantaged groups. Whilst positive examples are celebrated, we lack a framework to understand how organizations can successfully create social change. This project set out to develop such a framework based on evidence, i.e. actual research that links organisations and their actions to collective behaviour change.

What is social change?
One challenge is to be clear about what we mean by “social change”. For the purpose of our research, we define social change as

  • collective and tangible: Social change refers to systemic transformation in the behaviour of groups of people or society.
  • positive: Social change benefits individuals, organisations, society and the environment.
  • agentic: Organisations can proactively create social change, it is not merely something that is “happening to us”.

How did we develop our social-change framework?
We aimed to be as inclusive as possible. That is we systematically reviewed  20 years of publications. These included  academic and practitioner research, both peer reviewed and so-called grey literature. We opened our search to a wide range of disciplines including business and management, economics, public health, public policy, medicine, education, psychology, sociology, environmental studies and engineering. Our search retrieved over 10,000 publications of potential relevance for the review. Through a systematic coding procedure we identified the 123 most relevant sources of evidence. These formed the basis  on which we developed our social change framework.

Throughout the process we were advised by leading academics in the field of social change and social entrepreneurship (Johanna Mair, Stanford University and Hertie School of Governance) and on the methodology of systematic reviews (Rob Briner, University of Bath and Jo Rick, University of Manchester), as well as by managers of businesses interested in sustainability and the Network of Business Sustainability (nbs.net). This enabled us to develop a theoretically and methodologically rigorous framework which can serve as a useful  resource for practitioners. 

What is the focus of social change?
The following are examples of behaviours that when exhibited by people, groups and organisations have wider benefits for society.

  • Environmental behavior such as increasing recycling, energy conservation, sustainable travel, sustainable consumption and sustainable production
  • Social and economic inclusion such as increasing the level of education particularly for marginalized groups and communities, reducing poverty and violence
  • Health behavior such as reducing health risk-behaviors (smoking, alcohol consumption), increasing preventive health behaviors (exercising, breastfeeding, hand-washing, safe sex) and facilitating access to healthcare
  • Civic engagement such as increasing volunteering, donating, philanthropy and charitable giving, voting and petitioning

Which organisations drive social change?
Perhaps unsurprisingly the social change efforts of social enterprises, community organisations and non-profits are best documented. But we also found evidence documenting social change efforts by businesses, local authorities and municipalities, researchers, social movements and professional associations.

The Framework: Motivation, Capability and Opportunity.
Organisations need to address three components to effect change: Motivation, Capability and Opportunity. Individuals and groups will only change if they have a reason to change, are able to change (i.e. have the required skills and knowledge), and have the opportunity to change (i.e. they have the necessary resources and conditions). Often some of these components are in place, but sometimes organisations need to work to address all three.

We identified 19 mechanisms, or actions, that organisations can target to change behavior:

  • 10 actions organisations can take to increase individuals’ motivation to change. These include the way organisations communicate, use incentives and influence.
  • 3 actions organisations can take to increase capability including educating to build knowledge, training to build skills and building confidence.
  • 6 actions organisations can take to create opportunities for individuals to change. These include restructuring the environment, supporting the creation of social capital and to set up empowering structures.

Organisations aiming to create long-term, deep-level change also need to consider how they are organised to deliver social change effectively. This is because deep-level change takes longer to unfold, is more uncertain and more complex to create. Change projects adopting so-called high-involvement strategies, which entail long-term commitment of both actors and resources, are successful. To be able to deliver such strategies, change projects need to ensure that they have a motivated project team, with the right capabilities to deliver change as well as ensuring that the change project creates opportunities to deliver change. We identified 13 project organising practices that typified successful change projects.

In conclusion
This research provides the most comprehensive and credible evidence to date on how organisations can drive social change. Based on a systematic review of 123 applied and academic studies from 1992 to 2012, we developed a framework to understand how organisations can drive social change. The framework identifies the three overarching conditions necessary for changing people's behaviour as well as the 19 specific mechanisms companies can use to drive positive behaviour change. It also provides advice for managing successful change projects.

More information
The report can be downloaded here. It is written for practitioners and will be of interest to Directors of philanthropy, community relations, corporate citizenship and corporate social responsibility (CSR) and business leaders involved in social innovation. Directors of social enterprises and non-profits will also find inspiration in reviewing the practices of how to create social change.

If you are unsure how the practices may relate to your organisation, don’t hesitate to get in touch with the research team

This research could not have been produced without the financial and intellectual assistance of the Network for Business Sustainability