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As a doctoral student in the McGill Faculty of Management, Warren Nilsson's current choice of research subject -- a local meals-on-wheels operation called Santropol Roulant -- may seem a bit odd. But as a means to identify universal principles of social innovation, Nilsson couldn't ask for a better archetype.
In addition to its core work providing food and fellowship to home-bound Montrealers, the award-winning Santropol Roulant has become an intergenerational life force in the community, attracted hundreds of young adults to volunteering and spawned plenty of complementary initiatives. Nilsson is interested in how Santropol does it. He is finding the organization's impact has much to do with the way it relates to people, time and boundaries.
"I am looking at really broad themes," he said, "but in a hands-on, down-to-earth way. In the coming years I will expand my research of these themes to dozens of organizations. And if I'm successful in expressing the insights in meaningful ways and with rich examples, these insights may be useful to other organizations that are working together to solve societal problems."
In exploring social innovation, Nilsson is far from alone in the Faculty of Management. He's not even unusual. The results of an internal "Beyond Grey Pinstripes" survey revealed, like the portrait of a scattered family, a remarkable resemblance that runs across the faculty's departments and degree programs. In recent years, many courses around innovation and the social impact of business have been created or refined. The McGill branch of Net Impact, an international MBA student organization promoting responsible, sustainable business and social innovation, offers social-sector internship opportunities and invites provocative speakers. The undergraduate McGill Business Watch screens iconoclast films and unapologetically promotes Adbusters' annual Buy Nothing Day. The Dobson Centre for Entrepreneurial Studies leans toward the creation of enterprises that aspire to social good alongside profit. The Centre for International Management Studies has organized governments, schools and social organizations to promote sustainable growth in developing economies around the globe. And the breakthrough McGill-McConnell Program has educated senior and emerging leaders from influential voluntary sector organizations at work on the arts, education, family, human rights, literacy, hunger, health and the environment.
Yet the survey's most revealing finding may have been about the faculty itself. More than a third of tenured professors are invested in research around social innovation: Nancy Adler on leadership in developing countries, Laurette Dubé on social marketing, Steve Maguire on collaborative response to AIDS, Henry Mintzberg on cross-sector collaboration, Paola Perez-Aleman on the social impacts of innovation in developing countries, Vedat Verter on ethical management models of waste material transportation, to name just a few. "I could go right down the hall and find any number of people whose work impinges in one way or another on the social side," said Margaret Graham, faculty director of the McGill Innovation Consortium.
With this cross-section of professors now convening at monthly research round tables, she doesn't have to. "The proclivity of people in the faculty could meet a real need," continued Graham, an expert in the history of innovation. "Whether you are talking about a research and development lab, a government project, a charitable foundation, a service organization or a large corporation, the thing that makes or breaks an innovation is the social aspect. And yet the standard literature on innovation is mostly economic or technical in focus. The social aspect is widely ignored."
To fill this gap, the Faculty of Management recently launched a collaborative venture with DuPont Canada. Its thrust is a series of think-tank sessions, facilitated by McGill-McConnell Program faculty director Frances Westley and linking experts in innovation from DuPont and diverse regions of academic study. "We're trying to integrate the existing theoretical concepts of social innovation," explained Westley, "and turn those into practical concepts and tools that will be useful to practitioners in government, business or voluntary sectors who are actively working to transform their own organizations."
Though this venture is largely a pilot this year, plans include the publishing of these practical concepts, possibly followed by the creation of a centre to aid in their transfer to real-world situations. While social innovation, from a business point of view, means harnessing managerial techniques to address social problems, McGill-DuPont is not a case of simply instructing a non-profit organization -- or, for that matter, a school, a church, a hospital, a government -- to run like a business. "Efficiency is important, but it's only one part of how you organize to improve effectiveness," said Colleen Brydon, manager of DuPont Canada's Social Innovation Enterprise. "We are focusing on the greater effects of innovation."
According to Graham, these greater effects will come only through genuine collaboration, with all parties having an equal seat and an equal say at the table. "All kinds of knowledge are needed for any form of innovation," she added.
That includes knowledge created by students. Westley is working to publish the masters papers of McGill-McConnell Program grads. Graham engages students to research topics around the Canadian Innovation Strategy and seeks ways to put insightful student research to work. For future classes she plans to teach a case study written by second-year MBA student Dipa Mehta that examines the social implications of a Canadian pharmaceutical firm's decision to distribute a controversial new drug at the risk of negative publicity, but with the promise of advancing women's health in Canada. "The experience of this independent research has been a great learning experience for me and the company," Mehta said. "If it is going to be used and discussed by future management students, never mind whether it is published or acclaimed, it's a great honour."
If the agents for social innovation at the Faculty of Management are fostering a culture of research in action, growing ranks of students are cutting straight to the action. Take, for instance, the Community Experience Initiative (CEI), a classic case of social entrepreneurship launched in 2000 by McGill MBA alumni Eric Steedman and Kariann Aarup. A kind of matchmaking service for socially minded management students, CEI seeks to find and fund internships in the social sector. And it hosts non-profit career fairs across Canada. This year's Montreal event, held last month at Thomson House, drew 120 BCom and MBA students, mostly from McGill but also from Concordia and HEC, who want to make a social impact with their management education. "Research is vital," said Aarup, who also teaches the eye-opening Social Context of Business course required of McGill BCom undergrads. "But students get excited when they are introduced to the ideas of social innovation and sustainability and justice, and they want to do something about it."
Collaboration and motivation are the keys. "Innovation doesn't happen on its own," offered Graham. "It's time we make ideas matter in the world."
She paused, then added a semantic disclaimer: "Notice, I didn't say pay off."