This post appeared in GreenBiz on January 19, 2012

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a seven-week series by Nathan Springer that will chronicle in-depth the lessons from a course at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business on how to become a social intrapreneur — someone who makes change for good from within the enterprise.

You decide to attempt an ascent of Mt. Sustainability with a social impact project — now you just have to figure out when and how. If you’re not just waiting for the clouds to open up, Monty Python-style, with the voice of some higher power to send you on your quest, how do you get the project off the ground?

According to the class on Social Intrapreneurs at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, an opening in the clouds may not be far from reality. Lessons from the second week of the class help sustainability professionals seize the opportunity and build a case for a sustainability initiative.

In the week when we celebrate the accomplishments of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the American Civil Rights Movement, the framework designed by Professor Jerry Davis and former student Chris White draws heavily on social movement research to identify the enabling criteria for social intrapreneurs. “Part of what we’re doing here is finding the analogs to these factors in business changes that happen at the corporate level and signal now is the right time for this,” says Davis.

Observers often point to Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her bus seat for a white passenger and subsequent arrest as the catalyst for the Civil Rights movement. Numerous conditions from new media to desegregation of the military and hypocrisy of promoting democracy abroad without freedom at home enabled action. Movement leaders capitalized on this moment to launch a successful series of boycotts organized by a network of churches and activists in response to years of injustice.

The break in the clouds for an intrapreneur could be as simple as a public statement or as transformative as a new CEO. “One of the best examples is when Bill Ford became CEO of Ford,” says Davis who calls the great-grandson of the company founder an example of an elite ally. “He was named Detroit’s most vocal environmentalist. It was the signal of a big opportunity.” Suddenly engineers working on hybrid technology found support for their projects and produced the market’s first hybrid SUV.

Next page: Tools of the trade
One enabling condition to seize the opportunity, as in Ford’s case, is to have something in the works. We all know the innumerable benefits of sustainability: reputation building, cost cutting, talent retention, risk reduction, new markets. So how does an intrapreneur know what benefits to highlight in building a case?

Start with Yoshikoder. Yoshikoder is publicly available content analysis software that maps company language to communication frames that provide insight into the benefits, data, and authorities the company values. Students use it to analyze corporate documents such as 10-K statements and press releases to pitch an international service corps similar to the growing number of such programs described in a recent Wall Street Journal article.

“Data show this is a really efficient way of using company resources to train high potential employees,” says a team of students in a mock pitch to Davis and peers acting as Cisco executives. “Cisco services and solutions are about creating optimal business efficiencies and these are things we can practice with partner organizations,” the team says of the international community service program proposal.

The team highlights benefits that meet the market and industrial values of the company. Content analysis depends on the type of data used, the students discover when their analysis produces different outcomes by assessing 10-K’s and company blogs versus 10-K’s alone. Access to internal documents gives intrapreneurs even greater precision for a case.

Even with a sophisticated pitch based on the values of the company, executives are sold good ideas all the time. “Pitch to the current opportunity structure or problem that you’re facing,” says Davis to emphasize connecting the social impact project to immediate business objectives.
Social impact initiatives are especially good at resolving a disjuncture between public statements and actual company practice or a suddenly imposed external challenge a la Greenpeace, but they can also meet quarterly and annual strategic objectives. “You can aim to formulate your innovation as the solution to a problem or problems the company is facing,” Davis says.

Much of the work of social intrapreneurs seems incremental when compared to the American Civil Rights Movement. Even in the case of the American Civil Rights Movement, it was nearly 10 years of small successes after Brown v. Board of Education and Rosa Park’s courageous action before the Civil Rights Act was passed.

Under the best conditions, the most well devised social impact initiative can take years to reach its peak. The groundwork and success seizing an opening in the clouds will largely determine its outcome.