Saturday, February 9, 2008

Social Enterprise - Not yet at the Tipping Point!

Malcolm Gladwell was the author of 1999’s “The Tipping Point” - all about when an outlying idea– like social enterprise - idea suddenly becomes mainstream, part of a new, accepted truth.

Over a latte last week, a fellow social entrepreneur was trying to convince me that we’re in the middle of a kind of a tipping point right now with social enterprise.

Slowly but surely, he said, opinion-formers are beginning to join the dots between the environment, business and the world economy.

In this context, `social enterprise’ looks like less like recycling projects in northern Scotland and more a way of preventing us all being either blown up, drowned or roasted alive sometime in the next 100 years.

In this future, the social economy is the only economy. Listening to senior people, like Lord Browne of BP, it seems that nobody at the top of big business feels that it is enough anymore for companies just to make money. Things really are changing…

Great stuff! But is this really true? Have social entrepreneurs made such a big splash that we can relax as the mainstream economy socialises itself? Some of the signs are very good. You can’t go in a British supermarket these days without noticing a new mass-market for organic and fairly-trade goods which didn’t exist five years ago.

Looking wider, economic growth as the agreed goal of politics is now being challenged by, wait for it, the Conservative Party. Plus there appears to be a breakthrough for social enterprise in government procurement, thanks to the efforts of Mssrs Bland, Bubb, Black and co.

But there are also signs aplenty that the world economy is NOT going social as quickly as all that.

The stark facts, which any reader of the Independent will tell you, still show a world hurtling, almost hopelessly, towards mass starvation, vicious resource-wars and environmental chaos on a scale most of us try hard not to think about.

To this observer at least, separating the apparent from the real remains as hard as ever.

So what does this talk of a tipping-point mean for people like us - jobbing social entrepreneurs?

For most of us, it means very little. Our sphere of concern is inevitably the present, a double-bottom line that makes our jobs doubly stressful.

I’m in the middle of trying to sort out a way of stopping one of my businesses from losing so much money that we have to close it down next year. Its keeping me awake at night.

And if it meant flying round the world to get the investment I need, I would probably do it!

My perception as a working social entrepreneur is that despite the success of ECT and Greenwich Leisure, the social economy in the UK is still to make a convincing breakthrough.

We have to achieve something significant in health, employment services or education if we’re to show the Government that social enterprise is the right direction in which to out-source public services.

And this has to be more than pretty little pilot projects because while we’re doing these, US corporations will be asking for, and getting the big contracts, sure in the knowledge that investors will be lined up to back them.

To achieve breakthroughs, social entrepreneurs like myself need to change too. Working alone may no longer be possible and desirable. We may need to join forces with enlightened corporations in order to create the social businesses of the future.

It may well take their capital and know-how, twinned with our ability to work a double-bottom line that enables us to take on, for example, the US healthcare behemoths.

To do this, we need to swallow some of our holier-than-though attitudes and go make some new alliances. An example of this is the deal between CAN and Permira. I look forward to more like this.

Last time I mentioned Malcolm Gladwell who wrote the seminal book The Tipping Point. His latest book “Blink” has also created a major buzz.

“Blink” says that most of what we need to know about a person or situation can be gleaned from the first seconds of engagement, the blink of an eye.

However, “Blink” also warns us of the dangers of split-second decisions, the main one being how our irrational prejudices can blind us to the evidence in front of our eyes.

This is interesting territory for social entrepreneurs. Most of us do not go for protracted analysis or research, indeed it bores most of us rigid!

Much more important is that feeling we get, often instantly, about a person or project. Sometimes we get it right, like I did back in the 1990s when I simply knew that the Speaking Up proposition would work, despite all the signs otherwise.

But our gut instincts are often wrong, with quite damaging effects. A few years ago, I got heavily involved in the Aspire catalogue which eventually went bust.

I felt convinced at the beginning that Aspire couldn’t really fail and I went in headlong, helping found a branch in Cambridge.

So resolute was my faith, and those of many others, that it took a long time to see what one of our advisers in Cambridge saw right at the beginning - that the business was a dog.

So, several years on, am I any wiser? Do I try to balance my gut with a sober assessment of the facts?

I’m afraid the answer is probably no. I still rely primarily on my first instincts to guide me, whatever the evidence is saying.

Why? I think it comes down to the type of person you are. Personality tests bring me out as heavily intuitive in my approach. My number two, James, would, I am sure, come out as logical and ordered.

The key, for me, has not been to try to change, it has been to have people around me who are different.

This is where so many entrepreneurs get it wrong. Finding cornerstones who are not remotely like you is your first task if you are to succeed.

I am in no doubt whatsoever that without my methodical and more reserved number two, James Baddeley, Speaking Up would still be just me and my dreams.

But the key thing hasn’t been for to change – that is far too difficult and probably unhealthy. It has been to find somebody who blinks differently.

No comments: