Business School

When MBAs Learn from Social Movements

September 4, 2019  • Ideas Worth Teaching

From last year’s protests by Google employees to this summer’s worker walkouts at Wayfair, advocacy from within the rank-and-file of corporations has made headlines in recent years. But as Jerry Davis and Chris White see it, the trend toward employee activism was long in the making. For almost a decade, the two have taught a course at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business about creating positive change without authority in organizations. Last year, Intrapreneurship: Leading Social Innovation in Organizations was recognized with an Aspen Institute Ideas Worth Teaching Award. At a time when employees are increasingly recognized as changemakers, we spoke with Jerry and Chris about the social movements that reinforced their vision, and what the future of teaching intrapreneurship may look like.

Let’s start by clarifying the term ‘corporate social intrapreneurship’. How do you define it, and why does the definition matter?

In our book we define it this way: “Social intrapreneurs lead change within their organizations, without formal authority, that aligns with core business objectives while also advancing a social or environmental outcome.” For us, the last part is key: it has to advance a social or environmental outcome. But we are agnostic about whether it’s a product or service, or a change in how business is done (e.g., greening the supply chain), or in how people are managed to be more inclusive (e.g., a program to employ returning citizens), or in how the organization engages its community (e.g., the Corporate Service Corps that First Mover Kevin Thompson championed at IBM). We also emphasize “without formal authority” because we feel that’s what distinguishes “intrapreneurship” from just “doing your job.”

How has the reception of this course among students evolved from the first time it was taught to now? (For example, is understanding of intrapreneurship more widespread due to word-of-mouth?)

We first taught the course in winter 2011, and the idea that “leading social innovation in companies is like leading a social movement, and we can learn a lot from social movements” was not totally intuitive to people. But as we were teaching the class, the Arab Spring was happening, and Occupy Wall Street, and the Tea Party. Social movements were popping up everywhere. Meanwhile, we were seeing it within companies as well: millennials were vocal and increasingly organized around their values, and companies were taking more overtly political stands. So, we were perhaps a bit ahead of the curve on that – now it is really clear that movements are happening all over corporate America, like the Google walkout last November.

One thing that has not changed is our use of the “live case” method. A lot of business schools use static written case studies that are often out of date as soon as the print is dry. We bring in people from the real world who are wrestling with initiatives right now, and the students are charged with helping them achieve their goals using what they’ve learned in class. Later on we get to find out how things worked out, and a lot of the guest intrapreneurs come back year after year.

Understanding social networks and power dynamics shows up in a prominent position on your syllabus: why is that? And what does the software-based tool bring to the learning process?

Ask any intrapreneur about their journey and you will hear about the critical role of networks. But it’s not enough to just say “Who you know matters” or “Go out and network!” You need to understand who the key decision-makers are, who are the relevant people around them, who are potential allies you can mobilize. And it’s surprisingly hard to answer the question “Who do I know that knows someone who knows Executive X?” The tools for mapping networks are a lot better and easier to use than they used to be – anyone who knows how to use Excel can learn to use NodeXL pretty easily. And the data you need to create network maps is a lot more accessible. So if you could create a “social terrain map” of your organization, and identify where the key decision-makers are, and who are especially well-connected people who might be useful allies, you would be in a stronger position to advocate for your idea. At the same time, once you learn how to use network mapping software, you realize that it has lots of great applications for consulting, marketing, staffing the board, and so on.

Some of our students get really excited about the software, and go on to use it in their careers. Others leave with a better understanding of the principles involved, and apply those in lower-tech ways in order to be effective.

What do you see as the potential future for teaching intrapreneurship in business education?

Our course and the book we wrote on this topic (Changing Your Company from the Inside Out: A Guide for Social Intrapreneurs, Harvard Business Review Press) have gotten a fair amount of attention from people teaching at other business schools, and it’s clearly something that resonates with MBA students. Most MBAs have to take a corporate or consulting job when they get out – unless they have a big trust fund, they can’t afford to go straight into social entrepreneurship. They might be vegetarians who end up working at Tyson, or environmentalists working at Exxon, and they want to be able to act on their values at work. The class provides a way to navigate that terrain without getting fired. As we point out to the students, if you want to change the world, you might have a lot more leverage at a giant corporation than in starting an NGO. (The employee that persuades Exxon to leave all its oil in the ground and devote its resources to renewable energy will surely get a Nobel Peace Prize.)

But we also found that social intrapreneurship is a great lens to teach management. The Ross School’s core management class for undergrads uses our book as a vehicle to understand how organizations work: their strategy, structure, culture, values, networks, and so on. It turns out that the skills and tools you need to be an effective intrapreneur are some of the same ones you need to be an effective manager. Students work in groups over the course of the semester to design an intrapreneurial venture and propose a plan to launch it within a company chosen from among the school’s biggest recruiters. They end up gaining great skills into how to know a company well before they set foot inside, and it makes them more effective at interviews!

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