Social innovation … from the inside

3rd September 2014

While in Kenya, GSK research scientist Graham Simpson noticed that, without effective diagnostic tools, people were dying from curable diseases. It sparked an idea. GSK is now working Johns Hopkins University to develop cheap, user-friendly diagnostics kits that may also provide a new product line for the pharmaceuticals group. Simpson’s idea united social objectives and corporate goals. Yet many companies are failing to tap into this kind of internal innovation. So what more could they do?

In the case of Simpson – a winner in the 2013 League of Intrapreneurs awards – it was a six-month placement in Kenya with an NGO that exposed him to a social and commercial gap in the market.

Companies that want to foster these kinds of ideas would therefore do well to set up programmes – whether at home or abroad – that can expose their employees to new environments.

Some have recognised the benefits of the sabbatical or placement model. For GSK, the PULSE programme allows employees such as Simpson to work on voluntary placements with NGOs around the world.

Accenture, the consultancy, does something similar through its non-profit consulting arm, Accenture Development Partnerships (ADP), sending executives to work on projects to help NGOs increase their efficiency, whether in supply chain management or financial controls.

EY, the professional services firm, has a similar programme in which participating employees spend six to eight weeks mentoring entrepreneurs who are part of Endeavor, a global NGO that supports entrepreneurship.

“Companies need to mix it up in the sense of giving some bright high fliers broader experiences and experience of working with other sectors,” says David Grayson, director of the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility at Cranfield School of Management and co-author of the new book Social Intrapreneurism and All That Jazz.

But while helping their employees find inspiration for an idea is one thing, companies also need to provide the right kind of support for the people who want to develop an idea.

Too often, individuals are out on a limb, with managers either not understanding the value of the executive’s idea or worried that it will take them away from their day job.

“If they’re working on something that doesn’t seem part of the priorities of their boss, it can appear to be on the periphery of what they’re supposed to be doing,” says Nancy McGaw, director of the Aspen Institute’s First Movers fellowship. “That’s a challenge for people.”

The First Movers programme equips executives to bring about change or promote new ideas from within a corporation. Fellows learn how to navigate corporate hierarchies when implementing new ideas and to use their networks in seeking support for social innovation.

“One of the things social entrepreneurs do when they’re working at their best is engage others in the idea,” says McGaw.

However, even if individuals can get some of their colleagues interested in their idea, corporate settings can sometimes be hostile to anything that appears to distract from the company’s profit-making activities.

Gib Bulloch talks about the “anti-bodies” social intrapreneurs face. ‘When you’re trying to do something differently, you hit up against this invisible cultural set of norms that resist change,” says Bulloch, founder and executive director of ADP.

This might be everything from high investment hurdle rates to lack of support from leaders or a belief that anything designed to address social or environmental challenges should be developed from within the “CSR” (corporate social responsibility) department.

Grayson does see a role for CSR or sustainability departments. But he argues that, rather than acting as a silo, they should become facilitators for others across the enterprise. “If they see their role as internal coachers, connectors and consultants, this is an enormously positive force,” he says.

Gaining recognition – both internal and external – is also important. It was for this reason that Ashoka, the leading global network of social entrepreneurs, launched the League of Intrapreneurs awards, with Accenture as the convening sponsor.

Awards can also be a way of spreading the word – a something McGaw believes is critical. “We need exemplars of people who are doing this effectively,” she says. “Because there’s nothing more powerful in prompting others to act than seeing success stories.”


Here, I invite my interviewees to name a favourite charity and – in the spirit of Mixing It Up – a favourite cocktail.

David Grayson @DoughtyDavidG

Charity: Carers UK

Cocktail: Caipirinha

Nancy McGaw @AspenBizSociety

Charity: Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation

Cocktail: Gin and tonic

Gib Bulloch @gibbulloch

Charity: Project Mine

Cocktail: Caipirinha