How Social Intrapreneurs Can Navigate Networks and Power Structures

How Social Intrapreneurs Can Navigate Networks and Power Structures

Editor's Note: This is the third 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 2008, IBM sent its first group of 100 employees to perform month-long service projects around the world. Today, IBM's Corporate Service Corps (CSC) is the model for similar programs spreading rapidly to other companies, but when the initial proposal was first presented to executives, they laughed.

The third part in this series on Social Intrapreneurs following a class in the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan examines how intrapreneurs like those at IBM navigate and use networks to build the case for social impact initiatives.

The week kicks off with Kevin Thompson, a former Program Manager of the IBM CSC and graduate of the First Movers Program at the Aspen Institute (nominations for the next class ends Jan. 31). "In corporations you have to work in a system, you have to influence, you have to build allies, you have to do all these different things," he tells students. In 2006, CEO Samuel Palmisano wrote an article in Foreign Affairs [PDF] on the transformation of IBM to a globally integrated enterprise and the company was seeking initiatives that would achieve that vision.

"We took the ball at Corporate Citizenship and tried to connect it to the business," says Thompson. Although the program offered an alternative to the pricy, $1.2 million per person year-long international assignment, its likelihood of success and ability to execute were in question by executives. Building support for the idea throughout IBM, therefore, was essential.

Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point is the seminal book on networks and the spread of ideas. Gladwell describes the sudden boom in Cabbage Patch doll sales in the 1980's as an example of the "Law of the Few" in which some people exert disproportionate influence on new ideas and products. The book is a requirement for the class and labels people with authoritative influence as Mavens, relational influence as Connectors, and persuasive influence as Salespeople.

The trick for the IBM team was to identify a few of each. "If there's a place where you know a lot of employees go, start a conversation so you can show how many people are talking about this," says Thompson. Their methods were personal: increasingly they got to know certain executives. "One of the things that has been demystified as I've gotten to know senior execs is that they're people too," he says. These executives became sponsors who navigated the funding process with the CFO's office.

An increasingly sophisticated set of tools available in the last few years enables social intrapreneurs to be ever more strategic. MBA students in the Michigan class use free NodeXL software and publicly available instructions [PDF] to generate a full network map using data on interactions among colleagues from a company. The map looks like a solar system and identifies people with high connector influence, clusters of connections that could be allies or opponents, and degrees of separation between program allies and key decision-makers.

Data for such a map requires a full survey with questions such as "How often do you talk with this person for your job" and "How often do you socialize with this person", but sources of data may be more accessible with existing networks. "During the idea phase, if I was doing it today, I would use social media," says Thompson. The proliferation of internal company social media platforms and external tools like LinkedIn InMaps can be used to identify influencers and allies.

Thompson's team cleared initial approvals and the program was announced in summer of 2007 by the Chairman. The team moved forward with program design by meeting with leaders in specific functions, business units, and country heads. They needed Human Relations to sanction CSC as a leadership development program and addressed concerns by Sales that that their employees, whose performance was measured by different metrics, could participate.

The CSC design team learned what they needed for their case and built support from the network, then they were given one final challenge: a minimum of 250 applicants. When the IBM network delivered 5,500 applicants who met the top performer criteria, the team had what it needed to reach the tipping point. "In the end the strength of the experience, stories of participants, and media coverage calmed the first wave of resistance at time of launch," says Thompson. They mined the applications for data that demonstrated the broad appeal among IBM employees across countries, age groups, and functions.

"In geology, some aquifers are under so much pressure that you tap them and they flow for ten years," says Thompson. "That's what you want to do as social intrapreneurs." The CSC is now entering its fifth year with 500 participants annually and it has become a strategic approach for IBM to develop new emerging markets by gathering insights and generating brand equity.

Next Week: Mobilizing Allies