Saturday, December 16, 2006

In the Dec. 2006 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Clayton Christensen and others present "Disruptive Innovation for Social Change". The article leverages Christensen's "disruptive innovation" model to make some interesting observations and examples to explain the phenomenon of the Digital Society (my term, not theirs). Linking it to "innovation" is not unexpected, but hardly needed as far as I can tell from their 5 distinct characteristics (see abstract below). So while we may probably end up hearing a lot about "catalytic innovation" I hope the article will help channel energies in driving societal change.

My own take on the article is that there are some good points to help bring government and business together. And while it comes across as more of an "what is"-explanatory note; I am looking for the "how to". I sense that welfare-based societies like those of Northern Europe, in particular the Nordics or Canada have an advantage. Their earlier investments in societal infrastructure, can be digitized to lead the next wave of civilisation (Google "neotechnic" & "third wave"). Further, I think multi-national firms can be great catalysts, by involving their employees in this innovation. After all, employees are also citizens of of their (local) societies....

Abstract of the HBR article below (the highlights are my own).

Countries, organizations, and individuals around the globe spend aggressively to solve social problems, but these efforts often fail to deliver. Misdirected investment is the primary reason for that failure. Most of the money earmarked for social initiatives goes to organizations that are structured to support specific groups of recipients, often with sophisticated solutions. Such organizations rarely reach the broader populations that could be served by simpler alternatives. There is, however, an effective way to get to those underserved populations. The authors call it "catalytic innovation." Based on Clayton Christensen's disruptive-innovation model, catalytic innovations challenge organizational incumbents by offering simpler, good-enough solutions aimed at underserved groups. Unlike disruptive innovations, though, catalytic innovations are focused on creating social change. Catalytic innovators are defined by five distinct qualities. First, they create social change through scaling and replication. Second, they meet a need that is either overserved (that is, the existing solution is more complex than necessary for many people) or not served at all. Third, the products and services they offer are simpler and cheaper than alternatives, but recipients view them as good enough. Fourth, they bring in resources in ways that initially seem unattractive to incumbents. And fifth, they are often ignored, put down, or even discouraged by existing organizations, which don't see the catalytic innovators' solutions as viable.

As the authors show through examples in health care, education, and economic development, both nonprofit and for-profit groups are finding ways to create catalytic innovation that drives social change. The HBR Spotlight on Making a Real Difference explores a pair of vexing questions: How should executives think about corporate social responsibility? and Why is it that the billions of dollars invested in social sector institutions haven't begun to solve our basic problems? Both articles have smart, original things to say about how business leaders can make a real difference. A company that aligns its strategy with its CSR to invest in disruptive social sector innovations might change the world.

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