Organizing social innovation without organizations

One distinctive feature of social innovation is that it is missing a signature organizational form.  In fact many of its proponents are either agnostic about organizations or downright antagonistic. Why?

There are practical reasons. No single organization or sector has the resources, money or expertise to fix social problems that have impacts that extend beyond their boundaries (Osborn, 2009) such as dealing with climate change.  So to think about a single organization fixing a social problem just doesn’t make sense. The consensus is that novel solutions to social problems can originate from any sector (Bacon et al, 2008; Mulgan et al., 2007) where everyone can be a ‘change maker’ (Drayton, 2006) and should remain “agnostic about the sources of social value” (Phills et al. 2008, p. 37).

There are also arguments around organizations being lousy at innovating on social problems.  Individual organizations are said to have an internal bias towards improving organizational capacity rather than having a societal impact (Pearson, 2007). Instead, solutions can be found in “hybrid organizing” – creativity borne of cross-sector work exemplified in fair trade, urban farming and restorative justice (Murray et al, 2010).  The blurring of the boundaries between organizations and sectors allows one sector to draw on the organizing ideas of another. New ways of thinking are also said to emerge as different perspectives “collide” (Centre for Social Innovation, 2010).

And there is also an argument that social problems are rooted in existing organizational arrangements. Organizations can seem incapable of innovation – such as government reluctance to take risks (Westley & Antadze, 2009), business avoidance of delivering public goods (Mulgan, 2006), and civil society’s lack of skills and resources (Murray et al., 2010) – as well as appearing complicit in sustaining social problems.  Organizations are said to embody the vested interests of those seeking to maintain social arrangements in ways that privilege some and marginalize others.

Safer ground is found then by concentrating on organizing rather than organizations.

But this is problematic.  A commitment to an eclectic approach to organizing can mask the challenges of combining different sectoral approaches.  It involves weaving together the unique objectives and logics integral to these organizing arrangements and recognizing their different forms of power and resources.

And yet so much is expected from hybrid organizing.  It is as though combinations of different organizational approaches are always generative – such as a focus on social problems (nonprofits), interest in problem solving (businesses), and commitment to social inclusion (governments).

And yet we know so little about hybrid organizing and how it actually works in practice (Billis, 2010). It seems unlikely though that combining different organizational types will always be positive. Mix-and-Match can look appealing but the after-taste can remind you of the importance of being more selective.  Some flavours tend to dominate. It could be that some combinations are best avoided in order not to dilute or crowd out the characteristics of certain organizational forms particularly suited to tackle complex social problems.


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