By Bradley Googins and Philip Mirvis
Top companies are doing many different things to engage their employees through CSR nowadays. There has, for example, been a big increase in corporate volunteering—including global service learning programs whereby companies send teams of employees into emerging markets to help groups and organizations address economic, social, and environmental concerns. On the operating front, more employees today are involved in sustainable supply chain management, cause-related marketing, and green business initiatives. Ericsson, the Swedish maker of advanced telecom equipment, pulls these threads together when engaging its employees in corporate social innovation.
To activate its guiding value of “innovate every day,” Ericsson hosts a grass-roots Collaborative Idea Management Program that enables employees to propose and build on innovative ideas in every region and layer of the company. Over 300 Electronic IdeaBoxes set up by employees have to date cumulated over 16,000 ideas and comments from over 10,000 users. These inputs are vetted, rated, and enhanced by experts and coaches throughout the company and bundled into award winning innovations.
In rural Kenya, as one example, a network of employees launched a Community Power Project that uses “off-the-grid” base stations, powered by wind and/or solar power, to share excess power among nearby communities. The base stations power mobile phone charging (which drives network usage) and in larger scale deployment can electrify street lights, clinics and schools for an entire community.
Looking for urban innovation? Ericsson jointly developed with DataProm, Vivo and Telefónica a fleet management system in Curitiba, Brazil to connect buses wirelessly that has increased public confidence in travel safety and reduced fuel costs and travel time.
Of course, bringing such innovations to market takes money. A couple of years ago, Ericsson added Innova boxes to its program that provide internal venture capital funding for employee ideas. This venture funding allows employee groups to experiment with their innovations, develop prototypes, and ultimately to launch them in the marketplace.
Social R&D in Africa
Where do innovative ideas come from? While some innovations trace to technological breakthroughs, many more come from deep engagement with customers—current and future ones. For the past several years, Ericsson’s Mobile Innovation Centre has helped Millennial Villages in Africa to power up and maintain up-to-date health care records for villagers. This is one of its signature CSR programs. But connecting with poor villagers also brought into focus other opportunities for social innovation. Recently, the company co-created with the World Meteorological Organization and Uganda Department of Meteorology a mobile weather alert application that enhances the safety of fishermen in Lake Victoria through detailed, customized weather forecasts.
The story behind Africa’s “rise” features political and economic reforms, to be sure, but it is also hinges on the telecommunications revolution. Africa today has more than 650 million mobile phone subscribers—more than the U.S. and Europe combined. To better understand this market, and to contribute to its growth and maturity, Ericsson recently sent thirty of its high potential employees on a week-long leadership development program to Tanzania. Their mission: learn about leadership and engage in social R&D.
One of us (Mirvis) joined colleagues from World Action Teams to facilitate the program. On the ground, the Ericsson leaders visited NGO leaders running schools, orphanages, and other social service organizations; met with deans and faculty training future scientists and entrepreneurs at The Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology near Arusha, and talked with Dr. Frank, the American “bush doctor” who, after a near-death climb on Mt. Kilimanjaro, set up a clinic cum hospital in the rural village of Karatu, well off the tourists’ path in northwest Tanzania.
Well, you may wonder, what does all this have to do with telecommunications, leadership development, and social innovation? The connections: the managers were meeting leaders who were deeply in touch with their communities; who had launched entrepreneurial ventures and innovations designed to meet community needs; and who were driven by personal passion and dire circumstances to make a real difference in their world.
From Ideas to Action
On the Serengeti, the Ericsson managers witnessed environmental degradation and its cultural consequences among the tribal Masai who can no longer graze their cattle on drought-stricken plains and are learning instead to live together in villages. But there we saw villagers electrify their homes with methane gas from their cows and use mobile phones to track market prices for their bulls. Ideas bubbled up about other low- and high-tech innovations that might draw from Ericsson know-how and technology.
A visit to dusty townships found locals using MPesa— mobile money stored on cell phones--to pay for their goods and services None of the Ericsson leaders—whether based in Sweden or Singapore, the US, Brazil, or Russia—had access to mobile money in their homelands. This raised lots of discussion about the relevance of “reverse innovation” in home markets!
Finally, the leaders had a home-stay with villagers, learned about daily chores and family life, and experienced, however briefly, a taste of the joys and hardships of life in Tanzania. They afterwards invited their hosts to a party at a nearby hotel where villagers-and-visitors laughed, ate, danced, and compared mobile phone features and apps.
Reflecting on their African experiences, Ericsson’s next generation of leaders spoke about how it had opened their eyes to conditions on the ground, taught them about what it takes to truly care for a community, and led them to reflect deeply on their personal purpose and mission as business leaders.
Next item on their back-home agenda: a briefing with the CEO on what they learned about leadership from their visits and on innovative ideas to create value with sustainability/CSR. Stay tuned….
This article was first published at Business Civic Leadership Center / U.S. Chamber of Commerce.