Recognizing Opportunities for Social Innovation in Organizations

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

Social innovation can mean big business and big changes for corporations and societies. In this lesson, you'll learn more about recognizing opportunities for social innovation and how to motivate change.

Unilever's Social Innovation

Unilever, the parent company of brands you may recognize such as Dove, Lipton and Hellmann's, is also a big player in social innovation circles. Their 'Sustainable Living Plan' is a 'blueprint' for growing their business, lessening their environmental footprint and increasing positive social impact.

The plan, which includes components such as how they source raw materials, is created to make 'sustainable living commonplace.' Among their goals? Helping more than a billion people improve their health and hygiene, cutting their environmental impact by half, creating a more fair workplace and advancing opportunities for women.

These plans are part of an overall push toward social innovation inside of corporations. Social innovation includes initiatives, products or processes that fuel changes in how businesses operate to help create social or environmental movements, as well as generate profits. Social innovations are solutions to social problems that offer value to society in a way that is effective, efficient and sustainable.

Effective social movements change organizations for the better by making them more aware of the environment around them. It allows them to use some of their products, practices, people and processes to bring about positive social changes.

Understanding how to recognize those social opportunities, however, is an important piece of the innovation process. It involves understanding when the time is right, reading the organization's structure to maximize success, finding supporters to build a team and presenting an innovation that shows both social and business value.

How to Spot Opportunities

Recognizing when the time is right for an innovation requires the mindset of an entrepreneur. What does that mean? It means having a natural curiosity, a willingness to put in the work and to approach challenges in ways that require creativity with a sense of optimism that you can find a better solution. It may require breaking some rules or veering out of a traditional structure or way of doing things. Ideas for social innovation can come from a variety of places including:

  • Education, both formal and informal
  • Awareness of issues
  • Basic brainstorming
  • Surveys, questionnaires or focus groups
  • Even by accident!

Many of these areas require a basic curiosity and awareness that can help you identify potential problems or areas that are being overlooked and find needed solutions to bridge that gap.

Understanding Your Opportunities

Being able to read the opportunity structure within your organization refers to understanding not only the right place for an innovation, but the right timing. Individuals leading social innovation must have a grasp of their organization's terrain (what makes sense?) and strategy (what is our mission, our market, our industry like?). They must also understand a company's structure, including the people in charge and how various business processes are laid out.

You may also want to take a look at your organization's culture by asking, 'What are our core values?' or 'What are our priorities?' Timing is the last thing to consider. If an organization is struggling or there's been a change in corporate leadership, those may not be the best times to push a social agenda. Look for signals for opportunities that might tell you the time is right, such as particular events, a misalignment of values or practices, or even something spurred on by a competitor.

Navigating Social Terrain

Once you've grasped the culture, climate and terrain of your organization, you have to figure out how to navigate its social terrain with your ideas. This includes finding allies and supporters, including elite allies who share the same values you're promoting.

Getting friends at work involved in social innovations can be a critical component of advancing your ideas. They can advocate for you and throw support behind your concepts, as well as reach out to their connections for support. Look for individuals across multiple departments, and seek the support of individuals with high visibility who can help make you - and your idea - look good.

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