Social sector innovation report highlights opportunity but lacks specificity

I first heard about the paper When Bees Meet Trees from Tim Draimin, who heads up the Social Innovation Generation National team.  He thought the article, which explores how large social sector organizations can help scale social innovation, would be of interest and asked me to share a few thoughts.  Little did Tim know that I would write several paragraphs critiquing the paper!

I had the feeling that the term ‘social innovation’ was used in this paper very broadly and loosely to apply to almost any change in the social context, in social service delivery or within a social organization.  To give just one small example, the paper cites as a major innovation the inclusion of hearing aids on the list of items covered by the National Health Service in the UK. Granted, this is an excellent and very welcome policy shift.  But is it a social innovation? (see the SiG knowledge hub for a definition of social innovation)

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c/o Blair

Any term can become almost meaningless if it is employed too loosely and is applied to characterize virtually any type of change.  I believe that there is a need for more conceptual clarity around the notion of social innovation.  For example, there is not a clear distinction made in this paper – or in conversations more generally − between the concept of social innovation, (characterized by durability, impact and scale) and social sector innovation.  The latter is less broad and represents one subset of the former concept. I had some difficulty with the paper advising the social service sector to embrace social innovation because it was written in such general terms. The paper’s call to “engage with social innovation, and commit at a leadership and business planning level to trying to support social innovation reach scale” needs to be better explained.

The paper does set out a very helpful list of how-to’s for enabling social sector innovation but it should make a conceptual distinction between internal organizational innovations and substantial qualitative innovations in service delivery.  For example, there are innovations within organizations in terms of how they communicate; how they raise funds and finance their operations; how they learn and communicate with their members; and how they train their staff.  However, these internal changes may not change the methods or interventions they employ to deliver their services.  Presumably, social sector innovation implies at least a disruptive shift in service delivery and, ideally, a change in organizational processes as well. Sarah Schulman’s work in Australia focuses on profound changes in service delivery, which then lead to internal organizational shifts.

Additionally, the distinction between organizational incremental change and radical change to approaching a problem is not well made.  Organizational changes are often made by modifying the current procedures in place.  They start with the status quo and build up from there.  These shifts are primarily process-based.  Disruptive changes, by contrast, start with an identified problem and ask what needs to be done to tackle the challenge more effectively. These changes are mainly outcomes-based.

It also seems to me that the impetus for disruptive change may have to come from some place outside existing organizations (e.g. a lab or the “bees,” like small innovative organizations).  The large social sector organizations or “trees” typically will not select new methods that end up cutting themselves down.  The bees have an important role to play in stirring up the pot.

Finally, I believe that another conceptual disaggregation is required.  The social sector itself is not a monolith.  It actually comprises a wide range of generic interventions that apply to many groups within the population (e.g., affordable housing; training) and group-specific interventions (e.g., persons with disabilities; children in care).  I am not sure whether the to-do list set out in this paper is equally applicable to all these components.

Although there is a need to break down the silos within the social sector, I think this has to be done from a different starting point than what the paper advocates. The shift should start from the community rather than the organizations currently involved in service delivery.  The latter tend to be in survival rather than experimental mode.  Current funding structures don’t encourage the required experimentation. Consequently, profound shifts likely will not come from within the organizations themselves. They will feel comfortable engaging in a few upgrades and modifications to their internal processes.  While important, that is not what disruptive change is all about. Small nimble organizations and the broader community offer the most promising spaces for radical innovation.

Editor’s note: read Sherri Torjman’s post on the role of innovation ecosystems in enabling good ideas to take root. 

Bees, Trees and the Innovation Ecosystem

Sherri_Torjman bees and treesIf you ever have the good fortune to spend time with Tim Draimin, Executive Director of Social Innovation Generation National, you will learn a lot about social innovation − in Canada and abroad.

But you will also find out quickly that Tim is thinking about something that goes beyond innovation itself.  He is preoccupied with a notion called the “innovation ecosystem.”  You might wonder what on earth he is talking about.

Here is my interpretation.  Innovation represents a product, service, process or way of thinking that is qualitatively different from what is currently in place.  The innovation could be new or newly-applied.  The latter refers to something that has proven successful elsewhere and is now being applied to a new context or community.

The innovation ecosystem comprises all the actions you need to take to both sow and grow the innovation seeds.  A good idea − whether a product, service, process or new way of thinking − does not take hold just because it happens to be a good idea.  It needs to be planted in the right conditions and carefully cultivated to ensure it can take root and flourish.

bees meet trees

Report on how large social sector organisations can help to scale social innovation

Tim has recently read a report called When Bees Meet Trees: How large social sector organisations can help to scale social innovation.  The paper builds on earlier ideas that depicted bees as small organizations, individuals and groups that have the new ideas and are mobile, quick and able to cross-pollinate.  The trees, by contrast, are the big organizations − governments, companies and large not-for-profits − which are poor at creativity but generally good at implementation.  They have the resilience, roots and scale to make things happen.  Both the bees and the trees need each other.

 

While the ideas in this report may be interesting, they will not be applied unless they are disseminated, digested, discussed and debated.  Any innovation − including a new way of thinking − needs an innovation ecosystem in order to take hold.  This innovation ecosystem comprises of several components.

First, it is essential to identify the people who would have an interest in this product, service, process or new way of thinking.  Among them are those who are willing to go one step further and spread the word.  They may even be early adopters ready to apply the innovation to their own workplaces or communities.  There is a vital human resource component to the innovation ecosystem.

An innovative product, service, process or idea typically involves a variety of associated changes to take root.  When it comes to applying an idea, for example, it may be necessary to create new teams that work together in clusters rather than individually at desks.  Community locations, such as a coffee shop or neighbourhood hub, may replace a central office.  Virtual work spaces may be set up at home.  These are the physical space dimensions of the innovation ecosystem.

Before any new product, service, process or idea is introduced within an organization or community, there must be an assessment of who might be affected by the innovation and in what ways.  Innovation usually is ‘disruptive’ in that it implies a qualitative shift in how things are done.  While disruption is vital to innovation, it is important to try to minimize potential harms, such as job loss or exclusion from an essential service.  There is a key information component to the innovation ecosystem.

There are also legal dimensions to the innovation ecosystem to which innovators must pay attention.  It is possible that clients of a service may decide to launch a lawsuit, for example, if their benefits or supports are protected through legislation.  Employees may lodge a complaint or grievance if they feel that their contractual agreement has shifted fundamentally from its original signing.  While these possibilities should not necessarily block the innovation, change makers must be aware of the potential legal implications of their actions.

Of course, money is always a consideration.  How much will the innovation cost and from where will the funds come to support this new good, service, process or way of thinking?  Will they be redirected from another activity or program or will additional dollars have to be found?  Are there potentially new funders or sources of financing that might be tapped?  This is the financial component to the innovation ecosystem.

Finally, the policy component of the innovation ecosystem can help or hinder the application of a new product, service, process or idea.  For example, existing legislation may prevent non-profit organizations from raising new funds through profit-making activities.  Enabling policies, by contrast, could help open the door to new forms of financing.

At the end of the day, an innovation that has been applied well will probably be sustained over time.  If successful, other organizations and communities often want to apply it as well.  Sustainability and scaling are vital features of successful innovation.

No wonder Tim is obsessed with the innovation ecosystem.  Without it, innovation will likely not take hold.  For sure, it will not survive or go to scale.  Tim knows that it is imperative to create the conditions for success when the bees ultimately meet the trees.