Social intrapreneurship: The ‘new kid on the block’?

15.09.2014 Blog

Although we tend to primarily concentrate on the voluntary sector and the social economy to track social innovation, we have always emphasised that it can and does also occur in the sector of private business. Social innovation in the business world is a very common phenomenon, and there are at least two distinct forms of its initialisation: top-down and bottom up. Social innovation may be based on C-Level initiative, or it may first be undertaken by single or a limited number of individuals at lower hierarchical levels. No matter why, where or by whom: it requires some initiative to gain the momentum necessary to take off and make a difference. And that is, it needs some element of entrepreneurship. And indeed, there is a theme in the corporate world that has just recently intermingled in this respect with social innovation: Intrapreneurship - which can be defined in two ways. Firstly, as the successful adaptation of entrepreneurial attitudes and strategies within an organisation; and secondly, as the implementation of start-up practices within an established and relatively large organization, producing valued innovation. And we could add: If this innovation is valued because of its social value, then we may speak of social intrapreneurship, the corporate sibling of the well-known social entrepreneurship movement.

But let us go back for a minute to trace the antecedent of  intrapreneurship: Although it may sound like a new term, in fact it has a history and was first discussed as early as 1978 in an article by Gifford and Elizabeth Pinchot titled “Intra-Corporate Entrepreneurship (Some Thoughts Stirred Up by Attending Robert Schwartz’s School for Entrepreneurs)”. And then in 1982 – after he had worked on the subject already since 1976 – Norman Macrae further explores intrapreneurship in his article “We’re all Intrapreneurial Now”.

However, these were early and more or less academic discussions of a phenomenon predicted to have a great future, for that to come, it took some more years, with 3M being one popular example of an exception. And even today it is not yet common practice but still rather the exception, although spearheads like Google or Apple with an emphasis on innovative corporate culture, may make it appear more ubiquitous than is the case. Although the willingness to foster it is present in corporations, we may assume that in the majority of corporations and SME’s, a culture of intrapreneurship is still more of a vision than a reality.

Of course that holds even more for the newer concept of social intrapreneurship which has its roots in the already mentioned social entrepreneurship phenomenon and the realms of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and the corporate sustainability world’s latest craze, Porter/Kramer’s creating shared value (CSV). These two codes of practice seem to merge in the modern phenomenon of social intrapreneurship with social intrapreneurs working in businesses right now at the intersection of innovation, social good, and entrepreneurship. They launch new programmes, products, and initiatives that harness the power that corporations nowadays have and exert on society in countless ways. The aim is to use that power for good. And it is good for corporations, too: By valuing social intrapreneurship appropriately and proactively, large companies will see higher employee engagement and create valuable narratives on how their employees are making a difference in the world.

Today, corporate celebrities like Richard Branson or Guy Kawasaki have started to praise the merit of social intrapreneurship. Furthermore, there is a network called the League of Intrapreneurs, a global movement of corporate social intrapreneurs. At the 2013 Intrapreneurship Conference in Barcelona the BMW Foundation, CSR Europe, and Ashoka announced their 2014 Social Intrapreneurship Europe programme.

In a recent book publication, entitled “Social Intrapreneurism and All that Jazz”, David Grayson of the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility and co-authors Melody McLaren and Heiko Spitzeck provide evidence of intrapreneurial social impact, analysis of social intrapreneurship and its most distinguishing characteristics – and also how all this can be understood in the context of jazz as a comparison.

So, obviously there is a ‘new kid on the (social innovation) block’ – and the community would do well to keep an eye on the corporate world and not forget about its tremendous potential to make a difference.