Can business save the world? The question might distract business leaders from more immediate concerns, such as making a profit. Starting a conversation about sustainability, for instance, could even mark you down as an obstacle to success in some people's eyes.
This is the problem facing "social intrapreneurs," described in this insightful new book as the people in a corporation who put themselves forward to come up with innovations that address social or environmental challenges while generating revenue.
The authors of "Social Intrapreneurism and All That Jazz: How Business Innovators Are Helping to Build a More Sustainable World" have done well to uncover dozens of social intrapreneurs at big businesses around the world, and to get them to tell their stories.
The businesses involved include Vodafone, GSK, Accenture, Danone and DHL, and the individuals have been responsible for significant business activities, which are described at some length in the book.
Yet the tension running through this book is that these activities quite often must be carried out — initially, at least — almost by stealth.
One (anonymous) witness says, "There were times when I felt like I was fighting a guerrilla war inside the organization."
Another observes: "People presumed this was philanthropy — I said, no, this is about doing good business. Key lesson? Almost disguise social aspects and … emphasize business — then people are happier to talk."
These particular witnesses are happy to talk to the authors, but anonymously.
Successful social intrapreneurs require champions, protectors or, as the authors label them, "godparents." These can act as power brokers, help win access to resources and, if necessary, help the social intrapreneur work almost "under the radar."
A recurring theme in the book, tested almost to destruction, is jazz.
The authors point out that management literature is full of sporting metaphors that focus on competition, winning and individual leaders, but they argue that "jazz metaphors emphasize the value of co-operation and provide a more nuanced view of leadership."
It turns out that techniques required by social intrapreneurs to advance do have some parallels in jazz that are not so farfetched.
Like a jazz musician, the intrapreneur must go in for "wood-shedding" (solitary practice to improve technical skills), "soloing" (putting your ideas forward), "being a sideman" (contributing to a group in which you are a supporting team member) and "paying your dues" (contributing to your immediate team/community and earning trust).
In other words, social intrapreneurs must find and construct ensembles to prosper.
The authors are all business school academics. Grayson is professor of corporate responsibility at Cranfield School of Management in Britain, McLaren is an associate at Cranfield, and Spitzeck is a professor at the Fundação Dom Cabral in Brazil. The book is published by Greenfield Publishing.
They describe four types of social intrapreneur.
There are those who have left their company because of a lack of support for their idea. There are the exasperated, who stay on but are just concentrating on the day job. The emergent are starting out with their idea and are still unclear how the corporate environment will respond. As for the empowered, the company is actively encouraging their idea.
The authors are guardedly optimistic. Their successful witnesses have mastered balancing the roles of risk-taking entrepreneurs and rule-following employees within a large organization. They are "tempered radicals."
"Don't change companies, change the company you're in," advises one social intrapreneur. But this radicalism, too, is tempered by the book, which reminds any aspiring social entrepreneurs of a question they should ask themselves: "Am I prepared to lose my job if this doesn't work out?"
Stefan Stern is a frequent contributor to the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.