Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


Prepare for the arrival of the social intrapreneur

December 2010

Internal activists are emerging within some companies – and we need to encourage them,  says David Grayson

You may not have noticed it yet, but a new breed of corporate animal – the social intrapreneur – is appearing within the fabric of business.

Social intrapreneurs are people within large corporations who take direct initiative for innovation that addresses social or environmental challenges profitably. At the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility we have been studying what they do and the roles they are taking on.

We have met social intrapreneurs from a range of sectors. They are people like Nick Hughes and Susie Lonie from Vodafone, who have leveraged their company’s expertise in telecommunications to allow Kenyans with no bank account to complete simple financial transactions by mobile phone.

The likes of Nick and Susie are not necessarily corporate responsibility experts, but they all seem to have a similar mindset: one that values sustainability and which is able to combine business and social purpose to find social value. Key behaviours are persistence and self-belief, a hunger for continued learning and a capacity for outreach – plus the ability to reach out frequently to communities or environments in which they want to make a difference. Social intrapreneurs also appear skilled at working in partnership with others, both inside and outside their organizations.

We believe their emergence should be encouraged, and that companies need to consider creating an enabling environment for social intrapreneurship as a way of empowering all employees to treat sustainability as part of their day jobs. How to do this? A sophisticated approach would involve making social intrapreneurship an integral part of talent development and innovation. Google, for instance, allows employees to spend a designated amount of work-time pursuing their own ideas on projects that could benefit the company.  Walmart wants to have all of its employees working on what it calls ‘personal sustainability projects’.  

Such a commitment could be promoted by offering modest research and development funds to employees to enable them to ‘buy-out’ some of their own time to work up a social intrapreneurship proposal. Another mechanism could be for business development and corporate responsibility functions to regularly brainstorm ideas and publicise these ideas internally. Supporting social intrapreneurs could become one way for line-managers to fulfil key performance indicators around innovation, talent, new business development and sustainability.

More than anything, social intrapreneurs cannot operate in a vacuum. Corporations need to think about providing a helpful environment in which they can develop and test their ideas. That way society – and business – can harness the talent that is locked away in the corporate structure.

David Grayson is director of the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility,

Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility | Global | Employee relations

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