From Milwaukee Renaissance

MilwaukeeOnLineJournalOfSocialEnterprise: JamesCarlson2005February

Blending Social Enterprise

by JamesCarlson
February, 2005

Small business owners offer a specific skill of value to our community, and in turn they are entrusted by that community to enhance that skill and improve its value.

For the sole proprietor, there’s little to encourage the development of an explicit social enterprise or the ‘flavoring’ of normal business activities to encourage social enterprise. We’re already busy enough simply making ends meet, and keeping our business (and ourselves) alive. How can a bedraggled entrepreneur with an existing business model gently add a socially conscious component to that business?

A common obstacle is inherent to the entrepreneurial model: one person is normally focally responsible for the business and for the idea of the business. One person has one set of time and typically is compensated only for their application of one set of skills during that time. For example, a general contractor has a set of skills in contracting, and is compensated directly for the time they spend on that activity. They aren’t compensated directly for their ability to network, the time they spend marketing, following up, or seeking new business.

Therefore, they normally focus what time they do have for these activities on things that are more or less directly related to their core business offering.

Social enterprise depends on the formation of healthy networks. If the time we spend creating these networks cannot contribute to our sustainability, we are less likely to create them. How can we make the construction of networks a part of every transaction?

Another obstacle is built-in to the notion that skills are rare, relative to their lack. It’s because the contractor is effective at building walls that they get business building walls. They aren’t normally asked to teach a group of highschool students how to build walls, because their clients, some of whom may be highschool teachers, hire them to build walls in their house without ever thinking of the learning opportunity thus represented.

For our businesses to have a social benefit, we must begin to think differently about how we conduct our business—but we must also make sure our customers do the same, for they will often be the ones to drive us in a socially-conscious direction.

The example I gave before isn’t so far fetched. We just don’t build the process of thinking about how to make our enterprise a social enterprise into the day-to-day networking, connecting, and decision making that fills our work.

What can we do to change this?

I’m a big fan of changing the pattern that underlies a system to change the system. The pattern of a small business its its bureaucracy: we all use forms and standard contract templates to make our paperwork easier and faster. If these templates and forms don’t ask us to think about social enterprise, it’s less likely that we will. What if every contract negotiation form, statement of work, or invoice had a blank somewhere with a statement like:

List three aspects of this transaction that could be made into learning opportunities

These learning opportunities would be available to anyone. If I could watch a contractor build a wall, I would learn something about the world around me, and come to appreciate the work of others—aside from getting a glimmer of the real skill involved, which only my practice would create within myself.

Now this doesn’t mean that the parties to the agreement are obligated to turn their transaction into learning opportunities, it just means that they’re more likely to think about how they could. The role of making any transaction into a learning transaction should be played by a teacher.

Transactions are frequent. If teachers were built into transactions, learning opportunities would become commonplace while transactions became socially conscious.

Likewise, transactional documents could include statements like

List three non-profit organizations, teachers, or schools that could become involved with this transaction so building the learning network becomes an automatic part of doing this business.

These ideas may seem simple, but simpler ideas are what we need. Social Enterprise will become ubiquitous only when it is simple and accessible to anyone, blended into the course of daily life and daily business.

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Page last modified on July 21, 2006, at 04:26 AM