Experimentation, Practice, and Social Innovation
Practical experience in social innovation can build a person’s capacity to act skillfully in a variety of complex situations, especially in those increasingly common circumstances in which business must build alliances with the public sector and with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Moreover, the best managers will frequently find themselves, as noted by Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, switching jobs among the private sector, the government sector, and the nonprofit sector throughout their careers. In that spirit, many schools are now directing their students toward real-world projects that employ “social entrepreneurship,” using the practices of business to solve both business and wider societal problems. Their students find ways to broaden the positive impact of business by bringing social goals to traditional for-profit management; by applying business skills to nonprofit and NGO management; and by developing new models of hybrid, social-venture corporations. These hybrids might include, for example, environmentally innovative manufacturing companies or community development banks like the Grameen Bank. Such organizations explicitly focus on both financial and social bottom lines, pursuing profits while fulfilling social or philanthropic goals.
In contrast to the conventional sink-or-swim model of practical education, which places students under extreme competitive pressure with the narrowly defined goal of outdoing one another in a forced-curve classroom situation, these experiences have practical purposes, defined broadly to encompass both business achievement and positive social impacts. They put students in direct contact with people already engaged in enterprise in a variety of sectors, communities, and cultures. The context is designed as a learning experiment, with mentors and a collaborative spirit.
A case in point is the Global Health Initiative (GHI) at Northwestern University. In 2005, the university set up a collaborative effort including industry, nonprofits — notably the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — and faculty from three professional schools to develop and test what the GHI principals call “a new R&D model for the developing world.” They explain that “the regions that most need various health-related technologies often do not have the market potential to trigger the R&D expenditures required to adapt the existing technologies, such that they can be successful given realities of limited skilled personnel and infrastructure challenges.” GHI has framed this challenge as “simply a market problem.”
The university has set up what amounts to a small, nonprofit biotech company. To address the needs of developing countries, graduate students from the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern are working to modify the intellectual property contributed by GHI’s corporate partners, including Abbott Laboratories and Inverness Medical Innovations, and Kellogg School of Management MBA students are working to understand the market dynamics, government requirements, and distribution challenges on the ground. Finally, researchers from Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine will conduct field trials on the findings of the first two teams. Kellogg Professor Daniel Diermeier explains: “This gives students the experience of working in a medical device environment from cradle to grave. They do everything from initial market research to working with the engineering team to dealing with myriad implementation problems, all in a protected environment and on projects that have the potential to do a lot of good in this world.”
Northwestern’s GHI is only one of many practical experiments that hold the promise of giving students the chance to practice their decision-making and implementation skills, as well as to see themselves having an impact that goes beyond the bottom line. This kind of experience can be intoxicating. In fact, a review of curricular efforts in sustainability reported at Wharton in 2004 found that such practical and entrepreneurial initiatives were both driven by and most favorably received by business students.