UK: On The Inside Of Corporate Social Innovation

Last Updated: 23 December 2013
Article by Dot Zacharias

Most Read Contributor in UK, August 2017

When I joined Deloitte in 2010 as an Analyst in the Strategy Consulting team, it was fairly early days for corporate social innovation. Corporate Responsibility (CR) was still very much focused on fundraising and charity days at Deloitte. Three years later social innovation is a key part of Deloitte's CR programme and even, dare I say, its firm-wide strategy. CEO David Sproul is a vocal supporter of social enterprise and often recounts stories of Deloitte's projects and involvement in the sector.

What I found most exciting at Deloitte is the number of people who believe in the potential of corporate social innovation and spend their own time developing initiatives and raising awareness. For these committed individuals across the firm, social innovation is a highly valued way to support scalable social businesses.

Selling a social innovation

My first step in corporate social innovation was to volunteer for Strategy's CR team. I first suggested we support a social enterprise incubator that I had a connection with previously - Emerge Labs in Oxford – however, I soon realised that I had a lot to learn about how to bring new ideas into a corporate environment. Having previously been part of a start-up where ideas move fast, I had little idea of how much work or time would be involved in selling an idea, even into colleagues.

However, after lots of perseverance and versions of PowerPoint decks, we formed a great relationship with Emerge Labs which was really the start of our journey in social innovation.

After this initial success, we engaged the Strategy team in social innovation by supporting Emerge Lab workshops and organising events. The following year, Strategy Consulting had the highest proportion of participants in social innovation with almost 1 in 3 having been involved in some way. This level of support from employees proved to our leadership team that it was worth investing in.

Creating a culture of innovation

I joined the CR team in 2011 and in 2012 we launched the firm-wide initiative: Deloitte Social Innovation Pioneers. One of the programme's key objectives was to engage a much wider group of people than previously, primarily more senior employees who have little time for a cake sale or a day out with a school group. Through the Pioneers we saw Directors from Tax, Corporate Finance, Audit and Consulting commit a huge amount of time to working with small, ambitious social businesses. Directors, more at ease advising FTSE 500 clients, were faced with the daunting task of working with innovative, passionate entrepreneurs tackling complex social issues with often equally complex business models. 

Corporate social innovation is an important way for large businesses to add value to society, but also a great way for these firms to generate innovation by getting people to tackle some really big ideas. Through the Pioneers programme we ran Innovation Cafes, bringing together up to 40 Deloitte employees to discuss big, open-ended questions for a particular social enterprise – for example "What new product / service should we launch to our current market?" Feedback proved that the exchange was valued on both sides. Some employees said that it was the most inspiring thing they had done at Deloitte and it made them proud to work there. The social enterprise came away buzzing with new ideas for growth.

Why are companies interested in Social Innovation?

In my experience corporate social innovation is not about just marketing: if done right, it can deliver a whole range of benefits to an organisation. At Deloitte, social innovation is driven by a small group of committed people who believe that it's the right thing to do and that it just makes sense. They sell the programme internally by proving how social innovation can contribute to the business' objectives – people / talent development, client engagement and ultimately the bottom line. Social Innovation helps consulting firms to attract and retain the best talent, who increasingly want to work at a firm that doesn't ignore personal values.

I believe that there is a gradual but large-scale movement towards a new corporate culture where personal, human values are part of working life. Whereas committing time to responsible activities was once seen as a soft activity at Deloitte, people involved in the Pioneers programme are given high-profile recognition and reward.  Breaking down the corporate-social cultural divide is going to be vitally important for the long-term sustainability of business and society. If more people set about doing what they can to engage their business, people and resources in social enterprise, the impact on society would be something this generation of business leaders could be proud of.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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