Over the last ten years we have seen a significant uptick in interest in Social Intrapreneurs. The question is are they gaining traction or treading water?

We have worked with social intrapreneurs and organizations around the world that claim to promote social Intraprenuership but is it part of the company’s strategy or just part of their public facing image. There seems to be external pressure for organizations to say that they support social intrapreneurs and intrapreneurship even if they do not.

So, we decided to ask social intrapreneurs what they think is happening. They openly shared their thoughts and comments with us.

Is there commitment and involvement in social intrapreneurship at the highest levels of the organization? Are senior executives engaged in these activities or observing from the side lines? Are senior level sponsors in the organization held responsible and accountable for the success of social intrapreneurship? These were questions social intrapreneurs found difficult to answer.

Are social innovations part of the organizations investment portfolio or are these niche opportunities exploited for show. How are resources being allocated to these projects? Are the financial and non-financial resources leveraged in a way that support the long-term prospects for these projects? Social intrapreneurs tell us that these projects often take a back seat to core business investments.

Does the organization have a separate process used for evaluating the value and potential of social innovations? How are social innovation initiatives measured and tracked? Are traditional metrics being used to evaluate progress and inform new investments. Social intrapreneurs say that existing metrics often weed out longer-term, high potential social opportunities.

Is the marketing hype around social intrapreneurship real or part of a larger plan to convince clients, customers, workers, and shareholders that these organizations are committed to improving social issues? Are they buying into this hype by believing what they read even when they are not seeing it play out in reality? Is this just the latest management trend? Social intrapreneurs are asking the same things.

Are organizations actively changing their business model and culture to support a more socially responsible business environment? What are they doing to change the mindset and behaviors inside their organization? What steps are they taking to change how work gets done? Organizations are looking at changing their business model, but how social intrapreneurship fits in is not clear.

Are organizations proactively recruiting and hiring social intrapreneurs? What are they doing to identify and develop social intrapreneurs? Is this role a full-time position or something expected to be done in an employee’s free time? What type of training and experiential learning is taking place? Social intrapreneurs are feeling isolated and frustrated with little support from the organization.

As a result, social intrapreneurs are raising their own questions about their organization’s commitment to social intrapreneurship. Asking if senior management is really committed or just giving it lip service. They do not see it playing out in the day-to-day operations of their companies. There are pockets of activity but no large-scale movement. Social intrapreneurs told us that their organizations actions or inactions speak louder than their words.

Social intrapreneurs are also asking themselves if they have chosen the right path, in the right company, with the right purpose and values. They are wondering if what they signed up to do and what they are doing are in alignment with their own personal and professional aspirations. They see others like themselves reevaluating what they do, where they do it and even why they do it. Social intrapreneurs are exploring these same questions, choosing to be true to themselves.

At the same time organizations are asking themselves if social intrapreneurship is having an impact? Is it adding value to the business and society? How is it impacting the bottom line? Is it helping transform the company, the culture, and the future growth of the company? Should it be a strategic priority moving forward? The jury is out on answering these questions according to the executives asking them.

These are all good points that raise questions about the viability and trajectory for social intrapreneurs and social intrapreneurship. Even the most recent Yunus report on Social Intrapreneurship raises concern, “It is apparent there is a long way to go to achieve the real change that is essential for the sustainable development of our economic system and our world.”

Although there has been progress the challenges remain elusive for many organizations. A key driver for social intrapreneurship has been the shift from shareholder to stakeholder capitalism. A focus on environment, social and governance (ESG) as a way for organizations to create value and increase financial performance. But there is reluctance and skepticism in the ranks. Concepts like corporate social responsibility have not had the impact that was once expected. Will social intrapreneurship follow the same path?

So, it is not surprising that the largest hurdles come from within an organization. According to the Yunus report, “The challenges are diverse but there were reoccurring themes: C-level buy-in, access to resources, ring fencing* an initiative and aligning incentives and success metrics.” All things that social intrapreneurs should be able to deal with the right mix of knowledge, experience, and competencies. Nothing happens until something or someone changes. Social intrapreneurship like Intrapreneurship is all about change and change is driven by people.

Let us not forget that social intrapreneurs are following in the footsteps of their counterpart intrapreneurs or corporate entrepreneurs. Intrapreneurs and corporate entrepreneurs have had a longer runway to explore, to learn and create new pathways forward. They are still on that journey today. They raised the same questions that social intrapreneurs are asking today. Yet, they persevered, stayed the course, and made progress even if it seemed slow.

Over the last ten years we have checked in with social intrapreneurs to see how things are changing. Not from a success or failure perspective but looking at the progress they are making. Are they moving forward or standing still? How are they changing and what impact is that having on themselves, their organizations and society at large? We got a mixed reaction to these questions – it was not clear how much progress social intrapreneurs felt they were making.

Despite the doubts and the questions being raised there is a quiet undercurrent in progress that is not always evident on the surface. Social intrapreneurs are making progress even if it looks like they are treading water. They are focused, deliberate, and determined. They are building networks and communities in and outside their organizations to reinforce the work they are doing. They are not giving up. They are looking for the best way to move forward.

At times it might appear that social intrapreneurs are treading water, but they are also gaining traction. It may not be as visible or dramatic as we would like to see but it is happening none the less. It takes strength and stamina to tread water, and it takes courage and drive to gain traction. Things that social intrapreneurs have learned to do well. They must if they wanted to make progress. Start, stop, start-again. It has been their dedication, drive and commitment that has kept things moving forward. Social intrapreneurs are changing hearts and minds, cultures, and work, often one person at a time.

Like any new business approach, it must reach its own tipping point. The momentum is building, the interest is growing, and the need is increasing. There is more pressure on organizations to focus on social issues. Workers are voicing their opinions and choosing to leave organizations that do not measure up to their ideals. The pandemic has challenged every aspect of work and has shined a light on what is most important personally and professionally. Organizations are being pressured to rethink their strategies, redesign their business models, engage workers, and find ways to attract and retain talent.

These are all things that are driving the growing interest in social intrapreneurship. It is more visible today and recognized for the value it brings to individuals, organizations, and society. But it is social intrapreneurs that are pushing the boundaries. Showing us there are two sides to progress: treading water and gaining traction.

Are social intrapreneurs gaining traction or treading water. Let’s just say it is a little of both.


* A ring is a virtual barrier that segregates a portion of an individual’s or company’s financial assets from the rest.

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