Business 2.0, Sustainability

Social innovation in business

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking (but clearly not a lot of blog writing!) about the idea of social innovation in a business context.  This ties into some previous thoughts I’ve posted about values and sustainability as a lens for innovation.

Two articles that I’ve come across recently expand on this concept.  The first is from Tim Draimin and focuses on shifting from Corporate Social Responsibility to Corporate Social Innovation.

In the article Tim references Michael Porter’s thoughts:

Michael Porter suggests that CSR has evolved.  He speaks about a concept he calls “shared value” or “corporate policies and practices that enhance the competitiveness of the company while simultaneously advancing economic and social conditions in the communities in which it operates.”

The thinking goes that while traditional CSR programs are often viewed as an adjunct to the core business, something that happens “to the side”, the idea of CSI is that the benefit comes from the core business itself.  (While I do have reservations about the Corporate Social Innovation moniker, I do think the concept has merit.)

This is akin to what Adam Werbach outlines in his book Strategy for Sustainability when he talks about North Star goals and aligning sustainability goals with core business activity.  To my mind this also very much aligns with the concept of “betterness models” as put forward by Umair Haque.

I was reminded of this article (which I read quite a few weeks ago now) when I came across Dan Gray’s post on delivering short-term “quick wins” for sustainability within the context of a longer-term sustainability agenda.

In his post he says:

The authenticity of your commitment stems from the materiality of your actions – i.e. beyond the thin veneer of charitable giving, cause-related marketing etc., that commitment should be self-evident in the very products and services you provide, and the manner in which you conduct your daily business.

And goes on to quote Jonathon Porritt:

In an ideal world, all actions taken by a company to enhance its own commercial success should simultaneously generate benefits for society, over and above those that come directly through the use of that company’s products and services.

There are, of course, a number of cultural drivers that make consideration along these lines important for businesses moving forward, and I think they tie into the shift we’re also seeing in relation to social technologies (social networks etc.).  A quick summary of my current thinking is that people are seeking:

  • Human connection: as organisations have grown in size and become more and more depersonalised, people are wanting more human interactions and personal response.
  • Authenticity and transparency: from greenwashing to the GFC, the market’s trust has been eroded.  People are looking for organisations to say what they mean and mean what they say.
  • Co-creation and collaboration: people are taking a more active role in developing the products and services that they use.  And if they don’t find what they’re looking for, they will often create it themselves.
  • Environmental and social responsibility: global warming, looming limits to natural resource consumption, pollution and waste; respect for human dignity with fair wages and conditions — people want to support organisations that take these issues seriously, not just as something “to the side”.

Building a business (or service/product/brand) that resonates in this new “economy of meaning” requires a rethinking of an organisation’s role in more than “market” or financial terms.  But also, I think, a re-evaluation of an organisation’s relationship with customers/constituents, stakeholders, and the environment.

And I believe that it is in this rethinking that significant opportunities for innovation can be found.