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Organising ‘social innovation’

11 January 2017

The article at a glance

New study from the Centre for Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge calls for three sub-categories of social innovation – social entrepreneurship, social …

New study from the Centre for Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge calls for three sub-categories of social innovation – social entrepreneurship, social intrapreneurship, and social extrapreneurship – to create a new research framework.

social innovation

“Social innovation” is a very broad term. So a new study from the Centre for Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge Business School calls for a new framework of three sub-categories – social entrepreneurship, social intrapreneurship, and social extrapreneurship – in order to provide a useful structure for further research in this important field.

These three sub-categories will help pave new inroads, overcoming some of the challenges posed by the fact that many ideas and practices now grouped under “social innovation” may have relatively little in common, says the study by Paul Tracey and Neil Stott of the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI).

Such a three-pronged categorisation will help widen social innovation research from a relatively narrow academic and commercial focus to how organisations are altering society, and “such a shift is surely needed,” says the study just published in the journal Innovation: Organization & Management.

Paul Tracey & Neil Stott
Paul Tracey & Neil Stott

Paul Tracey, Professor of Innovation and Organisation at Cambridge Judge, is Academic Director of the Centre, and Neil Stott is its Executive Director. Their paper is entitled “Social innovation: a window on alternative ways of organizing and innovating”.

The study argues that innovation research has traditionally focused “overwhelmingly” on how for-profit firms create value through unmet market needs, but that such an approach is a “very narrow view” of social innovation.

So the paper proposes an alternative way of looking at social innovation through the three sub-categories:

  • “Social entrepreneurship”: creating and growing a venture (for-profit or non-profit) in order to address particular social challenges.
  • “Social intrapreneurship”: addressing social challenges from inside established organisations, while treating social problems as opportunities that simultaneously create social and commercial value.
  • “Social extrapreneurship”: working both in and between organisations and networks, not only to create novel solutions but also to develop ecosystems and support mechanisms for social change.

The paper then proposes three areas for research that tap into these new sub-categories – focusing on digital social innovation, social innovation from a critical perspective, and the role of geography in social innovation.

Digital social innovation is a ripe area for research because social entrepreneurship has shifted over the past two decades from a focus on “local solutions to local problems” to a broader focus on how technology can tackle global social problems. Similarly, in social intrapreneurship, major financial institutions such as Barclays have developed social innovation labs to harness their fintech capabilities to tackle social exclusion, while NGOs have invested in digital technology that help advance social extrapreneurship by harnessing stakeholder support.

A critical perspective on social innovation could look at the “dark side” of such activity including the adoption for public relations purposes of social-goal language by companies ideologically opposed to such goals.

The look at geography could examine how the practice of social innovation differs between northern and southern countries, including the challenges faced by countries such as Vietnam where social enterprise as an organisational form is only just developing.

“Social innovation research is very diverse and quite fragmented – there are many different approaches that individuals and organizations can take when addressing social problems, and these may have relatively little in common with one another,” says Tracey. “The result is that researchers sometimes talk past each other and end up comparing apples with pears, which is a barrier to knowledge creation.”

Adds Stott: “Our framework aims to present a meaningful classification for thinking about different types of social innovation that would help researchers locate their ideas, leading to more productive conversations in this field. In particular, social extrapreneurship is a relatively new concept and there is a real need for research that examines it.”

The study acknowledges that social innovation movements date back to the Victorian era, and the concept itself back to the start of civilisation, but the decades ahead will be particularly fascinating for studying this field owing to an intensifying public focus on issues such as inequality and environmental degradation.