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Amphibious academics: making research matter

By Julian Cottee, Skoll Centre Research & Insights Programme Manager

Our previous blog looked at ‘Six Reasons Why Research Matters for Social Entrepreneurship’, ranging from gaining a deep understanding of problem and solution landscapes, to innovation, and a critical birds-eye view of the sector. The Skoll Centre has since been exploring research for social entrepreneurship through a series of seminars led by impact-focused early career researchers from across Oxford University. Each has discussed their own research experiences and drawn out lessons for better aligning research with the needs of the social innovators.

Evidence and impact

Evidence and impact evaluation are top of the list for many practitioners when asked how research can help their work. Anna Custers, a Skoll Centre Early Career Research Fellow, explored this topic in depth through her experiences with a number of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) assessing the impact of poverty reduction measures in the Global South. The RCT methodology, originally designed for evaluating the impact of medical interventions, is now becoming more widely used outside of clinical settings. Social scientists in a range of fields are adopting RCT approaches, and while many policymakers view them as a ‘gold standard’ for evidence of impact, they are not uncontroversial. RCTs are complex, lengthy and expensive to set up, and they can only be used to evaluate a narrow gamut of interventions. Their strength in demonstrating the counterfactual – what happens in groups not receiving the intervention – also raises significant ethical questions. If demonstrating impact through RCTs were to become a routine part of the funding and policymaking landscape for social entrepreneurship, the range of projects would be curtailed, the speed of implementation would be reduced, and additional research funding would be needed. Further discussions revolve around the question of how much evidence is ‘enough’ to demonstrate impact, and to what extent this differs depending on the scale of the initiative being assessed. An expensive RCT might be appropriate for a highly scalable ‘big bet’ intervention that can be widely replicated if impact can be robustly demonstrated, but many, if not most, projects are smaller and more locally specific.

Ideas around the role of research in evidence provision were further developed by Dr Jenny Tran, speaking about a recent Skoll Centre-funded research project that interviewed 31 policymakers, funders and practitioners in the field of social innovation in healthcare in low- and middle- income countries. The interviews probed attitudes and beliefs relating to evidence within these three groups. Among practitioners for instance, responses ranged from seeing research and evidence as an accountability mechanism – “Research is a tool of justice…how are we holding ourselves accountable to our patients?” – to something that just needs to be done to satisfy the expectations of funders – “We do what we have to do”. The funders interviewed also had mixed attitudes towards evidence, with some admitting candidly that gut feeling was as important as data in making funding decisions. Organisations spoke of a lack of time and expertise to collect good data on their impact. One theme that clearly emerged from the interviews was a lack of consensus on how to operationalise a model of data generation and use amongst all three groups that is of an appropriate scale in terms of the time and resources demanded, as well as being robust and rigorous. RCTs were rarely seen to be the answer. Tran’s paper recommends a number of future pathways for improving research in this space, including further elaboration of the concept of ‘lean research’ striking the balance between appropriate scale and rigour; better technical education; and changing the way evidence generation is funded. All of these are ripe for future exploration. In addition, there is little or no attention currently paid to how organisations measure negative impacts, or their incentives for doing so. This too is an area that deserves further study and the development of practical tools for the generation of objective impact measurement.

Research for Action Partnerships

Oxford University’s Smart Handpumps project

Oxford University’s Smart Handpumps project. Image credit: www.oxwater.uk

Two other seminars in the series focused on the role of research not in the generation of evidence, but in others kinds of knowledge creation, through embedded partnerships between academics and practitioners. Kate Roll, Senior Research Fellow at Saïd Business School, spoke on the Oxford-Mars Mutuality in Business project, a large multi-year research project exploring the idea of mutuality as an organising principle for business. The project is unusual in that it is carried out by an academic team in collaboration with the Mars in-house think-tank, Catalyst. The allure of the set-up is clear from the point of view of carrying out research guided by real-world priorities – there is potential for unique access to knowledge, skill and legitimacy on both sides – yet challenges are also many. In particular, spanning the research-practice boundary brings to the fore different perspectives on questions such as:

  • When is work finished? (medium-rare or well done)
  • With whom can we meet? (negotiating internal access)
  • What is a good output? (collaboration, consultancy, opportunism)
  • Who needs to be involved? (setting boundaries in joint research)

Drawing on the theory of organisational hybridity, Kate explains such collaborations as a case of striving to effectively bring together differing ‘institutional logics’: “as the degree of incompatibility between logics increases, hybrid organisations face heightened challenges” (Pache and Santos 2013). In order to realise the unique opportunities for insight and impact, researchers are obliged to adopt the character of the ‘amphibious academic’. Even if they might be happier in water, like the frog, they too can cope ably on land.

Successful examples of such collaborations are not numerous. They require connections, funding and abundant engagement and amphibious capability from all partners. Alex Fischer and Heloise Greeff, members of the Skoll Centre’s Research for Action Network, spoke about Oxford’s Smart Handpumps project, a long-running collaboration with NGOs and government. While the project began by exploring the causes and impacts of broken water pumps in rural Kenya, it has since transitioned to address how broken pumps can be fixed quickly and cost-effectively. The project is now driving technological and systems innovation to the point that it has led to the creation of a social enterprise that will service the handpumps sustainably into the future using the technical and institutional knowledge generated in earlier phases. Alex and Heloise described a ‘research-action spiral’ in which innovation and research have circled around each other in a productive dance. These impactful outcomes of the project could not have been anticipated at the beginning of the research process – a powerful argument for research led by problems and not just solutions. Often, following intuitions and blind alleys was just as important for the development of the impact of the project as any planned research pathway. This highlights the value of flexible funding and creative leadership in action-research projects. Universities are an important ingredient in this kind of innovation and research, as they provide safe spaces for the exploration of novel ideas that may not otherwise be pursued. The role of PhD students too is of significant value – unlike research assistants or employed post-doc researchers, PhD students follow their own research agendas within the wider project, generating new ideas and possibilities.

For more Research for Action from the Skoll Centre, sign up to our RfA Network Bulletin.

Advancing Good Governance Seminar: Fancy Alliteration or Food for Action?

The Skoll Centre recently partnered with Linklaters, no rx Camfed, purchase and the Blavatnik School for Government to host the 1st annual seminar on Advancing Good Governance in International Development.  The theme this year was “accountability to the client.”

The spotlight focused on how organisations operating in the social sector can enhance responsiveness and accountability to its clients. But what does “client” really mean?  Are we talking beneficiaries, stakeholders, funders, partnering organisations? How do we make sure we are “accountable” to each of them, and all of them collectively, but which “them” do we put first?  This seminar was designed to explore and unpack precisely these complexities, and sparked some lively discussions.

Whether you are a social entrepreneur or policy maker, I think we all agree the field of international development, let alone achieving good governance within it, is complex.  However, there is hope. The seminar not only got folks talking, but went beyond providing food for thought and unveiled an effort to take action.  It put academics and practitioners in the same room and started to identify gaps and possible solutions/practices that need to be explored further.  These areas are being evaluated as we speak and a call for papers to address gaps in the existing literature is forthcoming (with a £20K stipend slated to go to the winner).

Of course a simple call for papers won’t solve the complexity of governance, but it is a start.  And it will serve as an impetus for the conversation until the second annual seminar next year.

Is the “social” needed before the “enterprise”?

With the new academic year kicking off, the debates and discussions are well underway.   Skoll Scholar Daniela Papi (@danielapapi) takes a moment to reflect on one of the more heated conversations we’re having: why the polarization between “entrepreneurship” and “social entrepreneurship”?

Reposted with permission from Daniela’s blog.

I’m starting my first week of classes at the University of Oxford in their MBA program, and I realize that I am not in the minority for having chosen this program because of its connection to the Skoll Center and its focus on “social entrepreneurship.” Many of the people I have met state that some aspect of “better” business is what brought them here…. well, that and the fact that you get to study in an institution with 800+ years of history and where some of the world’s most brilliant minds have gathered. It’s a fascinating place!

During our first week of orientation we had an optional day and a half session on social innovation that opened with Pamela Hartigan, director of the Skoll Center, speaking about how she thinks the word “social” needs to be removed from “entrepreneurship”. I couldn’t agree more, especially given the reception these concepts have received from some of my MBA classmates.

The polarization of “entrepreneurship” and “social entrepreneurship” implies mutual exclusivity. If you are a “social” entrepreneur, do you somehow get to claim moral superiority over your every day entrepreneur? Many of the most mission driven organizations I have seen have never heard of nor benefited from the term “social enterprise”, so why do we make this distinction? Is this naming trend causing us to forget that ALL business has the responsibility to not only increase profits for shareholders, but also respect and support the world around it?

I view “social” enterprises as businesses working towards social changes as their mission above maximizing income. We don’t call Colgate a social enterprise, but if a group said they were starting a business with the explicit mission of getting toothpaste out to people all over the developing world to reduce tooth decay, we might consider them so. If a group with a stated social mission took on the same business as Colgate, would just the motivating factor be enough to note the difference? Or, would there be no difference at all? And towards that end, should programs like mine be working to remove the polarizing “social” from the entrepreneurship to attract more MBA’s who don’t associate at all with the social side of this curriculum. Perhaps through their drive for successful businesses they will be ones who have the largest ability to make changes in the world?

Relying on free market approaches to global development does leave me with some additional concerns many stemming from a lack of a systematic way to define what “social” impact is.  If we believe that people will vote with their money for the things they believe in, then we might take the mindset that as long as you had a socially driven society, the market would drive social improvements. The dilemma here is that the social/environmental implications of certain purchases are not readily available to influence consumer decision making. More worrying is that much of this complete impact understanding is also not readily understood or sought out by business leaders themselves. If we don’t know our social impact and can’t measure it, how can we improve it?

It turns out the same dilemmas causing failures in the NGO world are at work in business. An inability or lack of effort to measure impact and tie positive impacts to future decision-making, both for donors and consumers, is creating inefficient markets where funding is going to areas which, with full informational clarity would be less desirable options.

How do we mesh all of the good intentions on one side with all of the business drive on another and make all parties realize that we can and are working towards the same goals? I’m so excited to see where this year takes me and all those of us on this course and how this unique MBA program will impact the work we all take on throughout our lives. Let’s hope that in the future the “social” doesn’t need to be listed as a distinction as a better understanding of the complete spectrum of impacts of our work will be available to all business leaders and consumers and we will all prioritize a better world in designing our businesses.

Don’t be an entrepreneur, build systems

 

This past June, TedxOxbridge premiered at SBS.  It was a provacative day of big ideas on how we can rethink business for the 21st century. It featured entrepreneurs, academics, social innovators, designers and behavorial scientists – who were all asking “How can we imagine Business as Unusual?”

All videos from the day are now up on the TEDx site. Personal favorites include:

But perhaps the one video getting the most pick-up is by SBS’s very own Professor Marc Ventresca.  Marc, an economic and organizational sociologist, proposes a bold critique of the “entrepreneur”, suggesting that greater, large-scale value creation comes  from system-builders, not entrepreneurs. It’s an arguement for networks, collaboration and connectivity across institutions – rather than a focus on the “heroic individual”.

Harvard Business Review’s Grant McCracken recently picked up on Marc’s talk.  According to the HBR piece, Grant pushes back on the notion of entrepreneurs as systems-builders. He argues: “Real acts of innovation are something more than acts of combination.” In other words, the role of the entrepreneur is not to re-assemble, but to work “de novo in the production of real novelty.”

What do you think? Who and what is an entrepreneur?

Read the full debate (including live commentary between the authors) on HBR and leave your comments below.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9T3diyqRPg]

 

 

Skoll Centre Research Grant Recepients Announced!

We are pleased to announce the recepients of the Skoll Centre Research Grants.  This newly lauched scheme offers University of Oxford academics and researchers the opportunity to advance knowledge in the field of social entrepreneurship – with this year’s theme specifically focused on finance. It is an area timely and relevant to practitioners and academics alike.

We were so pleased to receive many other quality proposals from across disciples throughout the University. It is a promising sign that the scholary inquiry into finance for social and environmental advancement will only continue to grow and enrichen our understanding of its broad potential.

Congratulations to the recepients, and look out for next year’s research round in early 2012.

Dr Robert Hope, School of Geography and the Environment

Impact, implications and opportunities for mobile phone water payments in Sub-Saharan Africa
A comparative study of the financial and societal implications of water mobile payment initiatives. It will explore:

  • the degree to which mobile banking can boost revenue collection and strengthen the financial base of water service providers
  • the extent to which mobile payments can benefit poor households due the lowering of water payment transaction costs
  • the broader potential of mobile banking platforms to unlock new and innovative models of water provision for the unconnected urban and rural poor in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Sangamitra Ramachander, Department of International Development

Towards a Framework to Assess Credit Risk in the Group Lending Approach to Microfinance
The study aims to develop a tool for practical use in the assessment of credit risk among borrower groups.  It is basedon previous empirical work identifying the three major sources of credit risk in joint liability group lending:

  • risk at the individual level pertaining to socioeconomic status, financial history and family support toward group membershi
  • risk arising from the particular purpose of loan use such as for productive investments, consumption, home construction, repayment of other loans and so on and
  • risk relating to group dynamics – particularly, the mechanism of group formation and levels of group cohesiveness.

This study will incorporate these major sources within a single analytical framework.

Jonathan Greenacre, Law and Finance, Said Business School    

The Regulation of Micro-Banking Industries
This project aims to design a regulatory framework that can be used to  help regulate micro-banking industries.  It will explore whether the principals, rules, and institutions that regulate retail banking industries in developed countries can serve as a guide to build a “hybrid” model of regulation. It will then examine which types of institutions can effectively apply this hybrid model, with cases studies in Cambodia, Kosovo, and Fiji.

Entrepreneurs: balancing value appropriation with value creation

This post was written by Pamela Hartigan

There’s been a lot of talk recently around the halls of Saïd about the future of business and what role entrepreneurs – especially those with a social bottom line – will play.  Along the way, some interesting questions have arisen. In particular,  where do we draw the line between commericial and social entrepreneurs – especially if both are having a social “impact”?  So here’s my two cents.

Entrepreneurs, whether primarily commercial or “social” in orientation, are cut from the same cloth.  In that sense, the term “social entrepreneur” has done entrepreneurs-so-designated a disservice, as people tend to classify them alongside “charities” and “do-gooders”. So it seems appropriate to highlight the essence of entrepreneurial activity in general, and then distinguish those who are primarily driven by value appropriation and from those primarily driven by social value creation, keeping in mind that all entrepreneurs must do both – but in each case, the emphasis is different.

In any situation, business-as-usual -or the status quo- implies the existence of an equilibrium which, even if unsatisfactory and inefficient, is at that time the only option that exists. Thus people simply put up with the current shortcomings.  The entrepreneur focuses on addressing that dissatisfactory equilibrium by providing an innovative solution – be it a new product, service or process.

For example, commercial entrepreneurs Sergey Brin and Larry Page identified an unsatisfactory equilibrium in the slowness of existing search engines. So they exploited the opportunity by improving on search engine speed, among other things, and in so doing created Google, raising the bar for all search engines. Likewise, social entrepreneur Jimmy Wales sought to provide a free open-content encyclopedia and today Wikipedia is available in the world’s leading ten languages.

Thus, all entrepreneurs are driven by a perceived opportunity which they relentlessly pursue.  Neither is propelled primarily by money. But for the commercial entrepreneur, from the beginning of the venture, the perceived opportunity lies in creating a new or improved product or service with the expectation that it will sell, generating financial profits for the entrepreneur and the investors.  As such, profit is essential to achieve massive uptake and market mainstreaming.

Social entrepreneurs, however, are driven to address market and/or government failures.  They work where business have failed to come up with innovative ways to design and deliver the goods and services needed to address social, economic and environmental  challenges because the risks are too high in relation to the financial profits.  Similarly, these are issues governments have been unable or unwilling to tackle – because of financial, political or bureaucratic constraints.  Social entrepreneurs are drawn to deal with such challenges, transforming the systems and practices that have stood in the way of pragmatic, equitable and sustainable solutions.

Our hope at the Skoll Centre– and the reason for our presence in Said Business School – is that all entrepreneurs balance value appropriation and social value creation goals from the outset as they pursue their innovative approaches.  And it is that spirit that we are keen to interface with the business leaders of tomorrow, including “social” and commercial entrepreneurs, and their investors.