2012-12-19

Co.Exist

Superheroes In Business Suits: Why The World Needs Social Intrapreneurs

When inside businesses are driving change from within the corporate structure, the change can be enormous. So we have to find ways to empower more people to identify as intrapreneurs.

We live in an era of superhuman challenges. Climate change, extreme poverty, and global hunger are a few of the many problems that have no easy fix, and yet they must be solved. In this world, we need full-time superheroes, not just mythical men and women who moonlight in tights and capes.

We need social intrapreneurs—people who works within companies to align economic and social goals. They are both Clark Kent and Superman at once, swooping in wearing shirt and tie or blouse. They can work in finance or supply chain, operations or marketing, or as the head of a business unit.

Social intrapreneurs across every function and company bring three essential abilities:

  • They are driven by an unyielding commitment to align economic and social benefit.
  • They channel their commitment through their function or existing expertise.
  • They draw from many tools to advance their mission.

Commitment, craft, and powers are exactly what the world needs to move companies toward solutions to these superhuman challenges.

Social intrapreneurs are driven by a commitment to make the world a better place. They expect nothing short of continual economic, environmental, and social improvement and disregard the logic that says economic prosperity sacrifices any of these.

It was a commitment to international development that helped Kevin Thompson and his colleagues launch IBM’s corporate service corps. Inspired by a 2006 Foreign Affairs article by then-CEO Samuel Palmisano calling for a globally integrated enterprise, Thompson and colleagues designed a one-month program for employees to use their expertise solving social challenges in emerging markets important to IBM. The first round drew 5,500 qualified applicants for 100 spots, and the program has become an important way for the company to understand growth markets and catalyze development.

An intrapreneur’s superpower is his or her area of business expertise. Finance professionals see the world in numbers and they expect social impact to show positive returns. Marketers design projects that touch people’s lives. Some of the best intrapreneurs work in human resources and know that companies with employees committed to a higher purpose outperform competitors.

Ford’s Dave Berdish employed his understanding of workers in manufacturing to develop the company’s human rights policy. In 1999, he was tapped by the CEO to create a policy that could work for the factories because of his experience in Ford plants. Berdish built relationships with workers and, through them, their communities to understand local needs. By 2003, Ford became the first automotive company to adopt a human rights code that applies to Ford factories and Tier 1 suppliers.

The diverse powers social intrapreneurs draw upon span technology, innovative processes, and their own wisdom. Technology such as internal and external social networks helps intrapreneurs connect with supporters and manage projects across multiple company boundaries. New processes such as the Global Reporting Index and Impact Reporting and Investment Standards help intrapreneurs define social impact and demonstrate results. Most importantly, intrapreneurs understand their company’s culture and systems to design projects that align company actions with social and environmental gain.

While aspiring intrapreneurs possess great potential, most will not accomplish their great task without a hero’s journey to master their tools, avoid pitfalls, and grow. Today’s social intrapreneurs can draw from an increasing number of guides and mentors.

We cannot wait for heroes to solve the world’s superhuman challenges. We need heroic professionals in every company. Many do not even know who they are. They feel an urge to use their craft and the powers available to them to create a better way. Who knows, you might even be a social intrapreneur.

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