This post appeared in GreenBiz on January 30, 2012

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth 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.

In the year after protestors toppled entire governments across the Middle East while others successfully occupied the global economic agenda for months, observers ask: have social media unlocked the door to widespread mobilization?

This is the fourth in a series following a class taught at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan on social intrapreneurs and it builds on last week’s article about navigating networks. Professor Jerry Davis and former student Chris White introduce students to tools and tactics that can mobilize allies in the most recent class.

Three social network tools in particular may ease the hard work of mobilizing allies to transform business into sustainable enterprise. Oliver Stewart presented to the class from Portland, Ore., on Opal, a cloud-based system that allows projects to progress apart from the company. Justin Yuen, owner of FMYI that enables enterprise and project collaboration among various stakeholders, and Susan Hunt Stevens of employee engagement platform Practically Green corresponded with me via email.

“Skunkworks” is the focus of the presentation by Opal Labs’ Oliver Stewart to demonstrate the enterprise software. A concept pioneered by Lockheed, skunkworks are innovation teams working relatively autonomously. “It is a set of tools for corporate intrapreneurs to create skunkworks for collaborative innovation,” says Stewart. The externally hosted platform looks familiar to users of other social media including personal profiles, a comment feed, and method to endorse ideas.

Stewart walks students through an example from Method, the non-toxic cleaner company. A senior manager posts a challenge: “What is the one thing we need to get better at right now to improve sustainability of our products?” He then offers a “bounty”, a reward of a free pass to the industry conference of choice, and sends an invite to employees. Over the course of a week, people post ideas, select a project based on endorsements, and collect research to present a case to the CEO for compostable bottles.

Another approach enhances project collaboration among internal and external stakeholders. Justin Yuen, whose company is a certified B Corp, is passionate about enabling success of social intrapreneurs. “It’s not just about social networking and challenges. It’s about getting things done in a social impact-friendly platform,” he says in an email. A central project page keeps track of activities by numerous stakeholders — employees, contractors, suppliers, and vendors — all with varying access permissions.

Hyatt Earth Network currently uses FMYI to coordinate sustainability teams across more than 250 sites. “Each location can share updates, post questions, and learn from one another as their projects progress,” says Yuen. Content is fully searchable and accessible based on topics tags mapped to Hyatt’s sustainability priority areas. The program has been so successful it recently expanded into the Hyatt Thrive program.

Practically Green focuses on the stage where broad employee engagement is essential to program success. “We have a hot-off-the-pressinfographic to showcase what Americans are planning to do to live healthier and greener. This is not just ‘talking’ about green,” writes founder Susan Hunt Stevens in a recent blog. The Practically Green application engages employees through a series of environmentally beneficialactions to motivate behavior changes.

Nearly 150 employees of Seventh Generation, another non-toxic cleaner company and also a B Corp, use the platform. Employees earn badges with actions like joining the company green team or changing commuting habits and can see what their colleagues are doing via an integrated suite of standalone applications and a web portal.

Social media can be a powerful platform for mobilizing allies, but it cannot entirely replace fundamentals. Network guru Malcolm Gladwell, introduced last week, describes the strengths and limits of social networks last year in a The New Yorker article that students read. “Social networks are effective at increasing participation — by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires,” he writes.

“There are many things, though, that networks don’t do well,” he continues. He states the so-called “weak ties” of social media are suited for adaptability and broad participation but fundamental changes to existing systems requires a disciplined core of dedicated leaders like those in the American Civil Rights Movement. “The civil-rights movement was high-risk activism. It was also, crucially, strategic activism: a challenge to the establishment mounted with precision and discipline,” he writes.

The promise of connecting and uniting allies through social media can be real. It should also complement a strategic approach with organized leaders, tasks, and goals. Mobilizing allies requires knowing when and how to use appropriate tactics to unlock sustainability.