Call it corporate social responsibility 2.0: Organizations are looking to use exponential technologies to drive social change and unlock new business opportunities.
Around the globe, an emerging entrepreneur class is accessing, adopting, and experimenting with exponential technologies, whose performance relative to cost and size is more than doubling every 12 to 18 months. Exponentials, which include technologies such as 3D printing, artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, virtual and augmented reality, alternative energy systems, biotechnology, and digital medicine, are sparking a renaissance of innovation, invention, and discovery. This phenomenon presents a wide array of opportunities and risks for market leaders, emerging players, and everyone in between.
Forward-thinking organizations are identifying opportunities to look beyond the purely commercial implications of exponential technologies and use them to catalyze transformational social change. This puts CIOs and IT in a unique position to help build awareness of the potential social impact and opportunities of exponential technology initiatives. This can be a natural extension of the CIO’s broader innovation and risk agendas. But it may also help CIOs define their legacies, promote their personal brands to the CEO and the board, and instill a new sense of purpose in the IT organization.
Social Good is Good Business
Globalization is stimulating more companies to consider societal issues as they enter new markets. Even companies with a strong market presence are working to expand their reach into additional segments and countries, including poor and aspirational markets. Here, big challenges exist: poverty, inadequate sanitation, poor water quality, and failures in housing, education, and health care. Resource constraints and environmental challenges loom, including energy costs, water quality, and pollution. In these markets, solving fundamental social needs can lead to commercial opportunities, but it can also challenge business operations. Growing businesses need capable employees, reliable suppliers, a well-governed economy, and consumers with the means and confidence to buy.
Dr. Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, has said, “In much of the world, markets must be built before they can be served. Forward-looking business leaders who embrace this reality make explicit commitments to enter new global markets both as economic opportunity zones as well as community spaces requiring nurturing and support.”¹ Applying advanced technologies can expedite this journey and amplify the effect. From using artificial intelligence and cloud computing to run advanced analytics studies of clean water to deploying drones to deliver food and medicine to villages isolated after natural disasters, real progress is being made, to exponential effect.
Purpose, Mission, and Talent
HR and business strategies should consider the expectations of both consumers and talent when it comes to social impact. Millennials’ decision-making processes are often influenced by a desire to have a larger purpose in life, which has made corporate social responsibility a growing consideration in shaping brand perception. According to one study, when companies support social and environmental issues, millennials respond with increased trust and loyalty and are more likely to buy those companies’ products. Even more pointedly, in a recent survey of millennials, more than 50 percent of 13- to 25-year-old respondents said they would refuse to work for an irresponsible corporation.²
Furthermore, a study by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 55 percent of companies with strong sustainability programs had better morale, 43 percent had more efficient business processes and a stronger public image, and 38 percent experienced higher employee loyalty.³ Social impact crosses generations and can be a differentiating factor for employees—especially in the hypercompetitive battle for the IT worker of the future.
Where to Start?
Defining the role exponential technologies can play in corporate social impact programs is the responsibility of IT executives, particularly the CIO. Here are some potential places to begin:
Frugal innovation. Business strategies may call for achieving growth by addressing the needs of poor and aspirational market segments, which often requires offering more sustainable, affordable products. Rather than stripping existing products of features, shift the focus to leveraging exponential technologies to invent something that is affordable and fills a basic need. For example, GE developed a portable ultrasound machine for China that not only decreased infant mortality rates but also created a new product category that led to widespread adoption. ⁴
Ecosystems. In their social impact efforts, organizations will likely be partnering not just with competitors, but with nongovernmental organizations and the public sector. Businesses and nonprofits are increasingly finding opportunities to fuse complementary knowledge, experience, and skills to influence social problems. Meanwhile, governments can also play an important role as buyers, coordinators, and implementation partners for market-based solutions.
Mindset change. Making the business case for solving social needs requires a change in mindset and new ways of doing business. Addressing the specific needs of underserved consumers, the social challenges facing local suppliers, and the limits of infrastructure and education requires a sustained commitment to serving a particular market. This might also require longer-term planning horizons, changes in the product development process, new forms of collaboration, and innovative business models.
Power to the people. Challenge stakeholders to help inform the social impact agenda. Hold companywide contests to surface ideas from around the globe. Crowdsource concepts from customers, partners, and other interested third parties. Organize hackathons to quickly form teams and refine raw thinking into high-level designs, business cases, and road maps. The more people engage in social impact programs, the more the programs will likely benefit everyone involved.
Ethics architecture. Make it the responsibility of teams working with artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D printing, and other exponentials to consider both the ethics and unintended consequences of these technologies. Building risk intelligence across IT is a leading practice, but it needs to evolve beyond security, privacy, safety, quality, and regulatory concerns. It should also include thoughtful exploration of potential social and ethical impacts and, as needed, strategies for mitigating associated risks.
By exploring how disruptive and relatively cheap emerging technologies can be optimized for both social and business gains, business and technology leaders may be able to help solve the world’s grandest challenges—and build new markets along the way.
Bill Briggs, Jerry O’Dwyer