CSR and the Value of the Social Intrapreneur

Corporate ‘rebels’ can actually drive valuable change for companies, addressing environmental and social issues profitably, according to new research.

The Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility at the UK’s Cranfield University, has looked at how individuals, businesses and other organisations work together to create value for business and communities. In its latest paper it looks at the CSR value of social intrapreneurs.

So what is a social intrapreneur? The researchers identify these as people within large businesses who take direct responsibility for CSR innovations. Amusingly, however, they are likely to be members of the awkward squad. They are people who challenge their employers and often go against the grain. However, if encouraged, they can use existing infrastructures to deliver social value on a large scale. And their innovations are likely to result in profit for their company – however irritating their ideas or challenges may initially have appeared.

Researchers identified and interviewed 25 social intrapreneurs as well as looking at the concept more generally. They found that the majority were involved in core CSR focussed activities including providing affordable goods and services for low-income communities, reducing resource consumption and mitigating the impacts of climate change. Interestingly, they do not think either in business or societal terms, but consistently combine the two. Such people are often leaders – having an ability to find and inspire champions to raise awareness of their projects and sponsors to access resources.

Unsurprisingly, there are a wide range of reactions from companies to these types of people, and what they are attempting to achieve. These range from hostile, through to indifference, and guarded tolerance. The ideal is where firms have understood the CSR value of encouraging and embracing social intrapreneurs and are able to do so successfully.

Researchers argue that companies should encourage social intrapreneurs as part of their work to drive innovation. If companies create an ‘enabling environment’ they are more likely to reap the benefits of employees embracing sustainability as part of their day jobs.

As part of the paper, researchers gave the inspiring example of social intrapreneur Jo da Silva, an engineer from the international firm Arup. In parallel to her day job, Jo was involved with post-disaster recover activities outside work, including constructing refugee camps after the Rwandan genocide.

Arup had just set up a Sustainable Task Force which Jo joined. She co-led a building group focused on creating social infrastructure in deprived urban areas. At the same time, due to her activities outside work, Jo was invited by UNHCR to co-ordinate post-disaster shelter construction following the Tsunami. Jo saw an opportunity to create a focus within Arup to address poverty in developing countries and so wrote directly to the chairman asking them to provide resources.

As a result, she established Arup International Development as a consultancy arm to provide technical advice and practical solutions to reducing poverty and improving health. Starting with just three months’ funding she has grown this section into a thriving business.

Researchers use her example to show how the combination of Jo’s skills and the firm’s attitude created the right environment for a profitable but socially responsible business.

In the next stage of their research, the Doughty Centre plan to look at how to create an ‘enabling environment’ for social intrapreneurs, and are looking for interested companies to take part.

The research paper is available at: www.som.cranfield.ac.uk/som/dinamic-content/media/social%20intrapreneurs%20occasional%20paper.pdf

Photo credit: Marion Doss