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Social Intrapreneurs: How Corporate Provocateurs Can Change the World

Published: April 27, 2011 in Knowledge@Australian School of Business
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A lot of apathy towards the challenges that face society is due to people's belief that nothing they do as individuals will have any impact. A typical line of thought is that big corporations make profits at the expense of everything else and individuals are hard pressed to bring about change.

However, working inside big corporations are some who adopt a less cynical line. "Social intrapreneurs" are people who combine a heady mixture of self-belief, curiosity, creativity and drive with an altruistic outlook on life. With the right circumstance and nurturing, they effect radical change by leveraging their employers' resources and capabilities in ways that are not only advantageous for the organisation, but that ripple outwards, benefitting the wider community.

The innovative ideas and actions of social intrapreneurs have the potential to solve global problems, says David Grayson, a professor from the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility at the UK's Cranfield University, who presented on the topic at the Centre for Social Impact's 2010 International Research Conference. With a research team, Grayson has been studying why and how social intrapreneurs operate. After conducting an international study, interviewing 25 social intrapreneurs in a range of sectors, including energy, media, retailing and financial services, Grayson and the research team have found they have mindsets, behaviours and skills in common, such as early exposure to social issues and a tendency to unerring persistence in the face of adversity. In a new paper, Social Intrapreneurs – an Extra Force for Sustainability, they have outlined the modus operandi of these corporate innovators who "know what people want and how to address their demands profitably".

Social intrapreneurs are typically strong on entrepreneurial and marketing skills and often these have been honed at an early age, the researchers found. "At the same time, these skills help them to generate the trust necessary to embark on new ideas with the support of senior executives within the companies," the researchers noted.

A standout Australian example of a social intrapreneur in action is Dan Godamunne, who has spent most of his working life at document management technology company, Fuji Xerox – previously in the UK and the US. He now works in Australia as the general manager of Fuji Xerox's Eco Manufacturing. When he moved with the company to Sydney in 1993, Fuji Xerox Australia was struggling as a borderline loss-making operation. A scientific background in research and development reinforced Godamunne's credentials when he approached his senior managers about the idea of a remanufacturing operation. The material cost of servicing Fuji Xerox products was high and Godamunne suggested that, instead of continually churning out new products, they should employ scientific diagnostic tools to pinpoint faulty components and then remake them to a high standard that they would guarantee.

"Although I had this vision and conceptual methodology to support it, I knew I had to be careful because if I talked about remanufacturing I would lose them," recalls Godamunne. "The bottom line for them was dollars and I gave them a rough estimate of A$5 million in savings in the first five years. There were also the added environmental benefits, and the fact that we could use it as a way of promoting our business – all this at a time when most companies weren't thinking along those lines." At the outset, Godamunne says he was conscious of not being too critical of the existing servicing system as people would become apprehensive and defensive. He also imposed his own time limit for the project. "I said: 'We'll do it progressively over a five-year period to prove it, not just at lab level but at field level in the service centres'."

The Eco Manufacturing Centre, where parts are sent for remanufacturing, is now a multi-award winning business that's sought out by governments and industry alike to learn from its success in what has since become known as "product lifecycle". It has turned Fuji Xerox Australia into a profit-making organisation recouping A$240 million on a A$21 million investment over a 15-year period. It covers all Fuji Xerox's technologies and has developed more than 800 remanufacturing programs, including six individual patents. The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney has a permanent showcase devoted to Fuji Xerox's entrepreneurial inventions. The company must be pleased they employed Godamunne, whose role as the centre's general manager is ongoing.

But getting an innovative, independent-minded employee and a huge corporation to walk down the aisle together is not easy. Grayson's research charts a spectrum of reactions from companies that have ranged from outright hostility to indifference to mature empowerment.

Overcoming Resistance

Sharon Parker is a professor in organisational psychology at the University of Western Australia's Business School. Her recent research projects on proactive behaviour and responses to it have explored the motivations of social intrapreneurs and how they generate change in organisations."Trying to effect change gives an individual meaning and purpose," Parker notes. "It enhances their learning and is exciting – and it's a great way to develop networks. But at the same time it's quite risky behaviour. Usually there's some resistance from somewhere and you can't anticipate what's going to happen. Businesses are set up to deliver profit and that's their dominant logic, so anyone trying to make profit and be a social intrapreneur is going to potentially come up across resistance."

The organisation has to be culturally receptive, observes Parker. "Is it a place where ideas are welcomed or is it risk-averse? If it's the latter, a budding social intrapreneur may not feel confident that the company has a clear vision – which is really important motivationally." Realistically, not every idea is going to be great, not every person is going to have the requisite skills, Parker says. "You need to motivate wise proactivity. People need certain capabilities for social intrapreneurship to be successful. They need very good interpersonal skills and an understanding that changing one element of a system has knock-on effects on other systems. That person is going to need a lot of organisational legitimacy. They need to have a reputation within and outside the company," Parker concludes.

Mark Glazebrook was given that authority by his employer, BP Australia. Not long after he joined the company, he received an email from an outback youth worker in the Northern Territory, describing the life-threatening levels of petrol sniffing among Indigenous communities. It said: "As I write, I can see a 10-year-old girl outside the window with half a Coke bottle filled with unleaded petrol tied over her mouth and nose. She may well never reach her 12th birthday." The letter had been sent to every fuel company in Australia. But corporate citizenship officer Glazebrook acted on it. He raised the problem with his bosses at BP who, he says, gave him the space to scope out whether the company had a role to play in alleviating the problem. "They were prepared to do nothing rather than do something for the sake of it. So I spent time visiting remote communities, speaking to elders, youngsters and local government and the key message was that these communities had no control over the fuel coming in." A project team was set up and Glazebrook and his colleagues started to think about engineering a low vapour fuel that worked effectively in vehicles without giving people the "high".

Following toxicology tests that confirmed the benefits of the new formula, Opal fuel was launched in 2005. (The name came through an employee competition as a way of engaging staff in what BP was doing). The federal government, recognising the huge benefits likely to follow, agreed to help fund fuel transportation and storage costs so that communities switching from standard unleaded fuel to Opal did not have to shoulder the additional financial burden. Such is the success of Opal fuel that Canada is now importing it for use in the Innu communities in Quebec and Labrador who are suffering from similar epidemics of petrol sniffing. "It's a profound thing to have been involved with, to help save the lives of young people, and that's what this is all about," says Glazebrook, who is now BP Australia's corporate responsibility manager.

Environments for Creative Destruction

To be an effective social intrapreneur, a person must necessarily be unreasonable, challenging the traditional boundaries of corporations to promote ideas that they think can make a social and economic contribution, according to Gianni Zappala, a researcher at the Centre for Social Impact at the University of New South Wales. He says the critical question is: "Can corporations provide an environment for that creative destruction to take place?" Large corporations are naturally very bureaucratic and do not easily allow any one employee to go off and solve problems that may have social benefit, says Zappala. "It's not to say it doesn't happen, but I think examples like Opal fuel at BP are the exceptions that prove the rule. You have to be a little bit left field and outside the corporate structures because if you're inside, you have to play the game."

Coping with the enormous social and environmental challenges that society faces in the future will require more than encouraging corporate responsibility and social intrapreneurship, according to Zappala. He believes corporations need to be "redesigned" in ways that go beyond the imperative for profitability and this requires changes in corporate architecture "with respect to law, charters, governance, internal incentives and the relationship with money markets".

When companies flaunt their social and community credentials, often it's about marketing and management posturing, notes Parker, who emphasises the importance of distinguishing between what's genuine and what's not. Climate change has presented a major motivator for companies to think laterally – and there's an opportunity for social intrapreneurs to be part of that development, she says.

Grayson's research reveals the "tone from the top" is crucial in encouraging social intrapreneurs. "It requires corporate leadership that gives employees permission and empowers them to take the initiative; regular emphasis of the importance of sustainability to the business; and story-telling that positively highlights examples of social intrapreneurs both inside and outside the company, in order to encourage other employees," he says. More sophisticated approaches involve making social intrapreneurship an integral part of talent development and innovation, Grayson reports. He cites internet giant Google, not only for allowing its employees to spend a designated part of their work time pursuing their own ideas for projects that could benefit the company but also for being explicit that these projects should benefit the environment and society.

"Seed funding is another way of encouraging staff to explore commercially promising projects," indicates Grayson. "Those who use seed funds most effectively with the greatest positive societal impact go on to secure larger financing for launch and subsequent expansion. [Mobile phone company] Vodafone, for example, now encourages employees to bid competitively for internal innovation funds."

If Australian businesses are to succeed in an increasingly competitive marketplace, the consensus is that senior business managers should embrace sponsorship of motivated and innovative staff, creating room for experimentation. There is also a role for non-government organisations (NGOs) and business schools, says Grayson. "NGOs should explore their membership for potential social intrapreneurs and business schools have a role to play, inspiring and training social intrapreneurs, particularly on the entrepreneurial as well as communication skills they need to succeed."

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