How corporations and social innovators can create an impact

Shameen Prashantham | Updated on: May 19, 2022
Beyond profit motive

Beyond profit motive | Photo Credit: VELANKANNI RAJ B

This involves clarifying the synergy of their collaboration, creating interfaces that bring them together more readily, and cultivating exemplars

As the world navigates a return to a semblance of normalcy after the two-year disruption wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a growing recognition that in this Decade of Action, the 2020s, efforts need to be stepped up to make progress in achieving the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

In addition to the traditional actors involved — the government, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and inter-government agencies such as the UN — businesses have a vitally important role to play in promoting the SDGs, including through interorganisational collaboration. Catalyst 2030, a global platform for social innovators, published a report calling for corporations to partner with social enterprises, to harness the scale of large companies alongside the agility of smaller entrepreneurial firms.

However, realising the potential of these partnerships is not straightforward. There is a paradox: the very differences that make it attractive for large and small organisations to collaborate also make it difficult to do so. These organisations have differing goals, structure and cognitive processes.

As noted in my recent book, Gorillas can Dance: Lessons from Microsoft and Other Corporations on Partnering with Startups, three important principles help to deal with this challenge: clarifying the synergy of these collaborations, creating interfaces that bring collaborators together more readily, and cultivating exemplars (that is, success stories) that show both sides what a successful collaboration might look like.

These principles can be usefully extended to large organisations engaging with smaller entrepreneurial firms to contribute to the SDGs.

First, a broader perspective on the synergy is needed. When two companies partner they typically look for a win-win relationship. When it comes to the SDGs, interfirm collaboration needed to be win-win-win, with an explicit recognition of not only how the two organisations in question will benefit but also how one or more SDGs might be advanced. During the pandemic, SDG 3 (health) has come into sharp focus. And the COP26 meeting in Glasgow last November has heightened the urgency around renewal energy (SDG 7) and climate action (SDG 13).

But any of the other SDGs are just as relevant, including the generation of decent work (SDG 8). IIMA doctoral scholar, Dibyendu Sharma, drew my attention to how efforts by giants like Amazon to enhance diversity in work opportunities include engaging with a social enterprise, Mirackle Couriers, which employs low-income deaf adults. Of course, these collaborations need to make business sense, not “merely” undertaken for corporate social responsibility (CSR). Compassionate intent must combine with the hard-nosed imperative of corporate innovation.

Need for interfaces

Second, a more inclusive approach to creating interfaces is called. The need for interfaces — that is, mechanisms that make it relatively easy for prospective partners to connect — is especially great when the collaborators differ greatly from each other. For corporate-startup partnering, interfaces may take the form of corporate accelerators, innovation challenges or venture studios.

When the SDGs are involved, then these interfaces — such as Microsoft’s Global Social Entrepreneurship programme — may have to be more broad-based to involve other actors including non-profits such as NGOs, corporate foundations or multilateral agencies like the UN. Ikea is a long-time supporter of social enterprises that operates this way. Large companies and corporate foundations can also coopt business schools to act as a bridge between various actors, as seen in the case of IIMB’s programmes for social enterprises and non-profits. Creating interfaces to bring together relevant actors increases the odds of forming partnerships.

Third, exemplars or success stories that demonstrate both economic payoff and social impact must be intentionally cultivated. The Satsure-Cisco collabration is a good example. Sectors like agriculture — vital for economic development — are being impacted by digitalisation through the availability of more precise data, which enables better decision-making and hence livelihoods for rural farmers. Satsure, a startup with expertise in spatial decision and farm intelligence, participated in the Cisco LaunchPad in Bengaluru. Subsequently, according to a Cisco white paper on smart agriculture, “For one of the large southern states of India, SatSure in partnership with Cisco is offering remote crop monitoring services using satellite imagery and AI”.

This partnership has helped Satsure achieve economic success and contribute to responsible consumption and production (SDG 12). Showcasing this exemplar instructively and inspiringly demonstrates what is plausible.

Clearly, none of this is easy to pull off. But at a time when people are looking for greater meaning in the workplace, the prospect of business having a positive social impact while pursuing excellence and profit in a competitive marketplace is likely to hold considerable appeal to employees. Realising this potential calls for, among other things, effective collaboration among vastly different actors, including large and small organisations — and the effort, though challenging, can be well worth it when it delivers economic value with social impact.

The writer is Professor of International Business & Strategy, and Associate Dean (MBA), at China Europe International Business School.

Published on May 19, 2022
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