It was while teaching a class in Social Change at Suffolk University in Boston, MA that I saw the optimism and commitment of the students to social causes.

It was a class of international students many who had come to America to seek a better education. They wanted to see the world through a different lens, a different way of thinking, a different way of being.

It was clear that many of them came from countries that had serious economic, political and social problems. They picked topics for their research papers that would send chills through most of us; human trafficking, drug cartels, hunger, women’s rights, pollution and so on. They were picking the toughest problems, the most challenging topics and the most important issues taking place in their countries.

At the end of the class, many of the students remarked how learning about social change over time had enabled them to see new possibilities for the future. They saw how one person could have an impact. They saw how building a community of like-minded people could make a difference. They felt empowered to be a catalyst for change. In the end many of them knew for the first time what they wanted to do.

They wanted to return home to build a better society in their own country. This is the new face of social innovators. This generation is socially conscious and aware. But it has been an evolution. It took years to get to this point.

Unlike these students, social intrapreneurs have been on the forefront of defining what it means for business to be socially responsible for a while. This was the new frontier only a few years ago. These individuals were the pioneers, charting a new course, testing the waters, seeing how far they could push the organization.

In 2011 we conducted research to understand exactly who these individuals were and what it took to be successful. It was clear that the role itself was still in its infancy. Individuals in large organizations where given responsibility without authority, asked to accomplish soft goals that were hard to measure let alone achieve, they had limited power and resources at their disposal and they were an anomaly to the rest of the organization.

In most organizations the role of social intrapreneur or corporate social responsibility was a political one. The pressure to become more socially conscious was driving organization to identify a figure head that could represent them at conferences, become part of their branding and PR strategy. It was a way to assure customers and shareholders that they were consciously aware of the impact of their business on society.

Social responsibility was something that organizations knew was important but didn’t always take seriously. Individuals who raised their hands to participate in their organizations social initiatives were in for a rude awakening. One CSR executive said, “My organization says it is committed to social responsibility but we still don’t have a seat at the executive table.” Social responsibility took a back seat to business as usual.

Back then, social intrapreneurs lagged behind more experienced innovators in large organizations, in the competencies that one would need to successfully build and launch an innovation inside an existing organization. Many had not had an opportunity to see a social innovation through from idea to implementation. You can’t be an intrapreneur, until you are intrapreneur. It’s all about the experience.

The research showed that social innovators were a reflection of the core business. These individuals exhibited behaviors that were in line with more traditional management practices. These practices were fine for supporting an existing business but not as effective when trying to build a new business.

In 2014 all that has changed thanks to the pioneering efforts of hundreds of individuals who took this role seriously; committed themselves to specific social causes and exhibited courage in the face of adversity. They have matured, become more disciplined, more creative, more strategic and tactical. They are more savvy and resilient. They are more confident, more responsible and more prepared to deal with a rapidly changing environment.

Not only do we attribute this change to their experience but to the adoption of social innovation as part of the new business model. Although social innovation is not totally integrated into the fabric of the organization it has been elevated in its status and focus within organizations.

Perhaps more importantly, for the first time we have four generations in the work force. Each generation has their own unique perspective on life and work. Each generation brings with them their values, their ideas and passion. As we saw earlier with the students in my Social Change class at Suffolk University, this generation is ready to step up and make a difference.

We must keep in mind however that most executives achieved their success by exploiting the core business, not building new ones. Without that experience there will always be a gap between traditional and entrepreneurial individuals. Once the current generation of executives retires things may change but for now there is big gap.

The current research shows that only four percent of executives in large organizations are entrepreneurs or entrepreneurial. Only one percent can lead an existing business at the same time they are building a new one. Only five percent of employees are entrepreneurial. So you can see we have a ways to go.

Until we have more individuals in the role of social intrapreneur the longer it will take to fully leverage this capability within organizations.

The social intrapreneur is no longer a political role it’s strategic.

What are you and your organization doing to identify and develop your social intrapreneurs?

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