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 had 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 had matured, become more disciplined, more creative, more strategic and tactical. They had become savvier and more resilient. They were more confident, more responsible and more prepared to deal with a rapidly changing environment.

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

Perhaps more importantly, for the first time there were four generations in the work force. Each generation had their own unique perspective on life and work. Each generation brought 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 was ready to step up and make a difference.

Up to this point, most executives had achieved their success by exploiting the core business, not building new ones. Without that experience there was a gap between traditional and entrepreneurial individuals. Once the current generation of executives retired things would change but until then there was a gap.

At the time, the research showed that only four percent of executives in large organizations were entrepreneurs or entrepreneurial. Only one percent could lead an existing business at the same time they were building a new one. Only five percent of employees were entrepreneurial. So, organizations still had a way to go.

Until there were more individuals in the role of social intrapreneur the longer it would take to fully leverage this capability within organizations.

In 2019 things have changed dramatically for social intrapreneurs.  More organizations have embraced social intrapreneurship given pressure from both internal and external forces.  And there are far more social intrapreneurs with a proven track record of success.  Their efforts have paved the way for those who aspire to be social intrapreneurs.

Social intrapreneurship has gained acceptance in organizations, universities, non-profit organizations and governments.

Organizations have recognized the value of social intrapreneurs in developing social innovations that have a social and financial impact. Technology advances have created new opportunities to enhance and enable new capabilities not seen before. Employees are attracted to organizations that promote and empower social intrapreneurs. Organizations are seeing the impact that social intrapreneurs can have on changing cultures.  These organizations are learning by doing.  Here is a sample of organizations that are fostering social intrapreneurship: Intel, BP, Ford, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Nestle, Dell, Dow Chemical, Levi, Barclays, Unilever, Kraft and more.

Universities that in the past only offered courses on social entrepreneurship are now offering courses in social intrapreneurship.  Drawing upon the success and lessons learned from social movements these programs show how social change happens.  Much like the course in Social Change at Suffolk University did for my students. Providing students with the tools, experience and insights to develop social innovations.  Even though many of these programs are electives they signal a growing acceptance that social intrapreneurship is a capability that students will need to succeed in the future.

One of the most progressive programs can be found at Presido Graduate School that acquired Bainbridge Graduate Institute in 2016 that had one of the first MBAs in Sustainable Business. The University of Michigan has a program and other institutions including Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Wharton, University of Oxford and American University are offering similar courses in social innovation, social enterprise etc.

Non-profit organizations more than others are benefiting from social intrapreneurship.  According to Suzanne Smith, “non-profit organizations that embrace social intrapreneurship, will have access to a much larger talent pool interested in large-scale impact.” Smith goes on to say that “social intrapreneurs can bring fresh thinking and find new revenue streams, crate new markets and enhance brand building” for those non-profit organizations that have “built traditional bureaucracies that often inhibit out-of-the box thinking and risk taking.”

The public sector has been slower to adopt intrapreneurship and social intrapreneurship. Part of the challenge is dealing with complex, bureaucratic organizations that must adhere to strict rules and regulations.  Another pressing problem has become their ability to attract and retain the best and brightest people. Rapid changes in technology are having an impact on how public services are delivered. Plus measuring social impact has been difficult.  All of these things are forcing governments to take a deeper look at intrapreneurship.  According to Kevin DeSouza, “social intrapreneurship in the public sector has been a missing capability.” One that is slowly changing given the unique demands being placed on governments to solve some of the most difficult and pressing problems in society that has inspired more public institutions to explore intrapreneurship.”

More importantly we see a host of organizations building communities, offering training, consulting, services and providing resources to support social intrapreneurs and their respective organizations.  Organizations like the League of Intrapreneurs, The Ashoka Changemakers, the Aspen Institute, and the Circle of Young Intrapreneurs are among the most well-known. Major consulting firms have set up consulting practices in support of social innovation and social intrapreneurship.  There are small and medium size organizations helping individuals and organizations adopt, develop and integrate social intrapreneurship into their cultures.

These are all significant signs that social intrapreneurship has grown in status and importance around the world.

Perhaps one of the reasons why, was expressed by Hanna Happe Linde, in her study titled, From Corporate Social Responsibility to Social Intrapreneurship, “Social intrapreneurship is a relatively new concept, aimed at creating long-lasting social and environmental impact, while aiding the company in its mission.  Given that Corporate Social Responsibility has failed to bring sufficient social change, social intrapreneur can be the new solution to many of the great social problems of today.”

Let’s hope so.

What about your organization? Is social intrapreneurship a strategic objective?


Classic Article – This article was published in 2014 and updated in 2019.

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