Applying Metrics to Social Innovation: Clayton Christensen’s commentary on the Obama’s Office of Social Innovation

Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School, writes a fascinating article in the Huffington Post: The White House Office on Social Innovation: A New Paradigm for Solving Social Problems. In the article he argues that the key to supporting social innovation is with a keen focus on metrics. He argues that we need to be ‘bottom-up’ and focus on ‘disruptive innovations.’ He questions governments role in supporting social innovation and questions why social innovation should be the domain of the nonprofit sector.

I agree with a bunch of what Christensen is saying in this artlce. I think that, although challenging, that the nonprofit sector has to get a better sense of their metrics. But not the metrics that the funders necessarily want, but rather the real, true human outcomes of our work. They are rarely the same. These metrics need to balanced with human stories that reveal the true impact of our work.

Christensen goes even further and argues that the social sector should be compensated according to their outcomes. He would suggest that an NPO would get more government investment if they produce better results. Conceptually, I kind of agree, but you know, the devil is always in the details. The minute that someone starts using the work metrics, we start thinking that ‘bigger is better’ and this just isn’t right. A great university education is not about how many people graduate or the job placement rate but rather about the quality of work and value that that student brings to the world. Tracking these kinds of outcomes is much more challenging.

Another area of concern is the one that I tend to harp on a lot lately: this whole idea of scale. The new US Office of Social Innovation has allocated $50m to roll out and help to scale successful social innovations. Okay, okay I get it… good ideas need to move around and get picked up by others. But I worry about the danger of one-size-fits-all thinking. Just because something works in one community, doesn’t mean that the carbon copy will work in another community.

Thinking like traditional business may very well get us into the same kinds of trouble that our whole planet is in now — bigger is better, scale up, the giant pyramid scheme with financial transactions that are completely disconnected from the means of production. I think that the social innovation sector can do better than that. I think that we can hold the artisanal quality of the small and leverage the power of networks and good ideas to bring about social change.

The US Office of Social Innovation is a good start, but for it really to work, I think that it will also need to look at…

  • How do good, new ideas bubble up from the bottom to be explored at the community level?
  • How do we bring intentionality and community wisdom to solving our problems?
  • How do we remove the policy and administrative barriers to enable social innovation? too often it is government policy that stands in the way of progress
  • How do we leverage the possibilities in the space between sectors – for profit, non profit and government
  • How can we foster the social innovation trends: hybridization of the sector, web-based thinking, collaboration, happiness and the power of local

Anyway, lots to think about. But I think that it is fair to say that this is just the beginning of a much larger conversation about what we need to do to enable social innovation here and around the world.

I am off to a great meeting next week — the Social Innovation Exchange Summer Institute with 100 leading social innovators from around the world to explore how social innovation can help to get us out of our current economic mess.

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