Sunday, 29 April 2007

Academic Network for Social Entrepreneurship

• This was a pre-gathering meeting held on the day before the main conference started. I thought I would arrive at the Forum early and check it out. This Academic Network brings together universities that are fostering social enterprise in their various courses. It aims to develop social entrepreneurship as a vocation and as a field of intellectual endeavour, and to carry social entrepreneurship principles into other disciplines and sectors. The Network also acts as a professional clearing-house of resources that will be useful to both academics and practitioners.

There is now quite a large network of universities connected in this academic network, including all the major “brands”: Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Stanford, etc as well as Universities from Asia and Latin America. Ashoka is also one of the founding partners.

Gregory Dees speaking to the University Network meeting in the Nelson Mandela Theatre, Said Business School, Oxford University 26 March 2007 — photo Hutchinson

• Once the session opened, the speakers on this day got right into the controversies on how things are going to be defined, how to judge effective management of social enterprises, and how all this can be fitted into and assessed within a mainstream university system, and marketed toward students. It all felt like quite a healthy and contested space of inquiry.

Curiously enough, many of the university representatives remarked that it is the interest of students in this whole area of social entrepreneurship which seems to be one of the main drivers of the establishment of the university courses. Many of the universities are racing to keep up with the interest and demand of students for these course options. This is further in evidence by the growth of independent university clubs and student voluntary organisations that are about supporting social enterprises and connecting with social services in their local area. This was all very encouraging to hear.

• The explosion of academic interest is also obvious in the growth of the serious literature that is now available. The Skoll Centre’s leading Oxford scholar, Alex Nichols, reported that up until recently there were hardly any academic books available on the subject of social enterprise. But in 2006 alone, six academic volumes were published. And at this Forum, Oxford University Press held a book launching of Alex Nichol’s own tome — an edited collection of many of the contributions and papers presented to earlier Skoll Forums.

• The most impressive speaker at this session was Gregory Dees, of Duke University, who is the man credited as being the leading academic in the discipline of social entrepreneurship. Dees presented a paper summarising his interviews with many social entrepreneurs, and his thoughts on how to strengthen the field of social entrepreneurship. (Refreshingly, he wasn’t into splitting academic hairs on how things were defined. “The academics and funders are more interested in this than practitioners...”)

Dees remarked that the university network needs to recognise that they need a whole new model of how their knowledge is shared ... because so much of what is going on just doesn’t fit the academic paradigm. He pointed out that social entrepreneur practitioners were not reaching out to the academics in search of the knowledge that is being gathered within the university courses.

Not too many of the academics at this meeting were recognising the growth of “peer learning communities” and Fellowships amongst social entrepreneurs as an innovative and entrepreneurial response to their own learning needs. Very few of the social entrepreneurs I spoke to at the Forum were interested in going on a structured academic course, or even felt that they wanted to get more “qualified”. At the same time, they are obviously learners who want to do their work better ... and are looking to one another to get to the edges of their learning.

• The University Network has struck up a collaboration with the Social Science Research Network to provide a forum where all the recent papers, research and reports and course material on social entrepreneurship can be gathered in one place. I’ve taken a look at it ... and while you have to do a bit of digging to get to the relevant social entrepreneurship section, it does hold potential to be an important place for sharing and commenting on the research materials as they are generated.

• Hardly anyone I had spoken to at the Forum had heard of the recently-published Canadian book “Getting To Maybe” which I was able to recommend as a great example of how academics have taken up the challenge of making their research, wisdom and insights more useful to practitioners.

• During this day, there was quite a bit of emphasis on scoping, mapping and defining social entrepreneurship in terms of what they are promoting as a new academic field of endeavour. This is something I’m personally not too convinced about ... or rather, I think there is far too much talk about all this being “new”.

My own view is that social entrepreneurship has always been with us in many different guises, although it is “new” to brand it in the way that it is framed within these conferences. I do agree, however, that we seem to be on the verge of a growing literacy as to the practice of social innovation. The academic research has a great deal to contribute in this regard ... but, for me, this is not so much about the creation and branding of a whole new academic field — it is more about noticing and developing the language to describe just what is making a difference. It is about developing this literacy on how fundamental sustainable social change is achieved.
— the website for the University Network
— Gregory Dees leads the Centre for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University
The Social Science Research Network archive of papers
Social Entrepreneurship: New Models of Sustainable Social Change, edited by Dr Alex Nicholls. (book pub 2006 by Oxford University Press)
"Strategic Tools for Social Entrepreneurs: Enhancing the Performance of Your Enterprising Nonprofit", by J. Gregory Dees, Jed Emerson, Peter Economy (pub 2002 Wiley)
"Enterprising Nonprofits: A Toolkit for Social Entrepreneurs", by J. Gregory Dees, Jed Emerson, Peter Economy (pub 2001 Wiley)
Getting to Maybe: How The World Is Changed by Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman and Michael Quinn Patton (book pub Random House Canada 2006)