How Technology Can Help Solve Societal Problems

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The Network Revolution

In the next article of the series, “The Network Revolution: Creating Value through Platforms, People and Technology,” authors Barry Libert, Megan Beck, Brian Komar and Josue Estrada debut the concept of Social Change as a Platform. Libert is a Wharton senior fellow and CEO of OpenMatters; Beck is the firm’s chief insights officer. Komar is vice president of community engagement for Salesforce.org, the nonprofit reseller of Salesforce.com Inc. Estrada is the senior vice president of strategy and operations at Salesforce.org. 

As Charles Dickens so astutely observed about life during the French Revolution in “A Tale of Two Cities,” it was the best and worst of times. One could say the same thing today. The Fourth Industrial Revolution of technology networks and platforms could usher in an era of mass societal disruption — as well as unprecedented social cooperation. Whether the latter would prevail depends on the ability of nonprofit entities and the broader social sector to boost their collective impact by adopting the new business models that are disrupting the for-profit world. It would also depend on whether they can embrace what we call ‘Social Change as a Platform’ or SCaaP.

During the turbulent 1960s, Bob Dylan wrote the following powerful lyrics for “The Times They Are A-Changin’” that seems apropos for today. “Come gather ’round people, wherever you roam, and admit that the waters around you have grown. And accept it that soon, you’ll be drenched to the bone. If your time to you is worth savin’, then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone. For the times they are a-changin’.” At the time, anti-war protests ruled the day. A generational collide over the future of America was afoot. And all the images of a nation coming apart at its seams were emblazoned across a new communications medium — TV — that was coming of age.

And so is it today. The Fourth Industrial Revolution — what Klaus Schwab (founder of the World Economic Forum) defines as the fusion of technologies blurring the lines among the physical, digital and biological spheres — is upon us. Meanwhile, nationalism is colliding with globalism, machine learning and artificial intelligence advancing geometrically, and global warming is on a direct path to changing the very nature of our planet. Despite these many challenges, this revolution, like the many that have preceded it, also comes with a great promise of opportunity.

To be sure, there are reasons for great optimism. In just the past 30 years, the global poverty rate halved with many of the poorest people in the world becoming significantly less poor. These gains mirror dramatic improvements in health and education including advances in life expectancy, child mortality, health care provision, among other important areas. Moreover, most of these gains predate the effective integration of digital technologies into the cause. In short, it is reasonable to argue that the potential for social ‘changemakers’ armed with today’s digital platforms in partnership with large and growing virtual networks can dramatically improve the human condition.

“The potential for social ‘changemakers’ armed with today’s digital platforms in partnership with large and growing virtual networks can dramatically improve the human condition.”

Self-organization Powered by Technology

Civil society — the network of institutions that define us as actors in the civil sphere independent of governments — is supposed to serve as the leader in promoting pluralism and social benefit. As Klaus Schwab notes that “a renewed focus on the essential contribution of civil society to a resilient global system alongside government and business has emerged.” Unfortunately, nonprofit groups, academic institutions and philanthropic organizations engaged in social change are struggling to adapt to the new global, technological and virtual landscape.

Legacy modes of operation, governance and leadership competencies rooted in the age of physical realities continue to dominate the space. Further, organizations still operate in internal and external silos — far from crossing industry lines, which are blurring. And their ability to lead in a world that is changing at an exponential rate seems hampered by their mental models and therefore their business models of creating and sustaining value as well.

If civil society is not to get drenched and sink like a stone, it must start swimming in a new direction. This new direction starts with social organizations fundamentally rethinking the core assumptions driving their attitudes, behaviors and beliefs about creating long-term sustainable value for their constituencies in an exponentially networked world. Rather than using an organization-centric model, the nonprofit sector and related organizations need to adopt a mental model based on scaling relationships in a whole new way using today’s technologies — the SCaaP model.

Embracing social change as a platform is more than a theory of change, it is a theory of being — one that places a virtual network or individuals seeking social change at the center of everything and leverages today’s digital platforms (such as social media, mobile, big data and machine learning) to facilitate stakeholders (contributors and consumers) to connect, collaborate, and interact with each other to exchange value among each other to effectuate exponential social change and impact.

SCaaP builds on the government as a platform movement (Gov 2.0) launched by technologist Tim O’Reilly and many others. Just as Gov 2.0 was not about a new kind of government but rather, as O’Reilly notes, “government stripped down to its core, rediscovered and reimagined as if for the first time,” so it is with social change as a platform. Civil society is the primary location for collective action and SCaaP helps to rebuild the kind of participatory community celebrated by 19th century French historian Alexis de Tocqueville when he observed that Americans’ propensity for civic association is central to making our democratic experiment work. “Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition,” he noted, “are forever forming associations.”

But SCaaP represents a fundamental shift in how civil society operates. It is grounded in exploiting new digital technologies, but extends well beyond them to focus on how organizations think about advancing their core mission — do they go at it alone or do they collaborate as part of a network? SCaaP requires thinking and operating, in all things, as a network. It requires updating the core DNA that runs through social change organizations to put relationships in service of a cause at the center, not the institution. When implemented correctly, SCaaP will impact everything — from the way an organization allocates resources to how value is captured and measured to helping individuals achieve their full potential.

SCaaP “requires updating the core DNA that runs through social change organizations to put relationships in service of a cause at the center, not the institution.”

Digital Platforms Empower Social Change at Scale

To be sure, early adopters are already using technology to effectuate change at a pace and scale not previously available in the physical and digitally disconnected world. The marginal cost of delivery remains too high. But with today’s technologies, with support from the board and management to make it happen, social change at scale is possible. Here are some organizations that are on the way to implementing SCaaP.

  • DonorsChoose.org: Every one of their 1.5 million donors can create engagement paths for each potential recipient of a classroom project, matching their specific giving preferences and history — something previously available only to large donors. It is the only nonprofit to be named to Fast Company’s list of the 50 Most Innovative Companies in the world.
  • Health Leads: It is a healthcare organization that connects low-income patients with the basic resources they need to be healthy, as part of their regular doctor’s visits. As Forbes noted, “Community health workers, case managers and/or student volunteers screen patients for unmet needs and help them access any of the 50 basic resource needs relevant for their circumstances, such as food assistance, childcare vouchers, enrollment in a GED program — even negotiating with the utilities company to get their heat turned back on.”
  • College for America: Southern New Hampshire University went from a small, relatively unremarkable New England institution to one of the biggest nonprofit online educators in the country. According to Campus Technology magazine, “SNHU has succeeded in the online space by leveraging technology and providing well-constructed courses and Amazon-like customer service to mostly older students at a cost they can afford.”
  • Salesforce.org’s Power of Us Hub: Among the most successful online communities built on Salesforce technology, the Power of Us Hub facilitates peer-to-peer collaboration around the effective use of technology for more than 30,000 social change organizations. More than 98% of the questions asked get answered by the community, a real shared benefit model in action.

Just as Apple chose a platform approach when launching their App Store, these organizations are enabling their partners and contributors to share and co-create in the value chain they co-inhabit. Each has moved beyond allowing supporters to donate and promote, toward sharing real value through stakeholders’ talents and assets.

Tomorrow’s SCaaP

We are at the dawn of the SCaaP era. The future of social change as a platform is a world of connected platforms working to solve society’s most pressing challenges more effectively as fast as possible. These platforms will supersede and encompass existing social change organizations. Those organizations that embrace social change as a platform will lead the way in helping to usher in this new era of connected social change platforms.

The core assets needed today to advance social change — ideas, individuals and institutions — continue to be the primary ingredients. What is changing and will continue to change, however, is the way these assets are assembled to deliver maximum social impact. Organizations can achieve SCAAP to the extent that those with a shared cause can gradually maximize shared capability (platforms) and minimize organization products. This represents a radical shift in approach.

Every organization relies on its information, capabilities and assets to be effective, but their networks are largely untapped or underutilized. Creating more value and scaling social impact requires the organizations’ leaders to leverage their networks, tapping into new sources of value, both tangible and intangible.

Value in the social impact supply chain will continue to come from new sources, for those who allow that to happen. Existing stakeholders in social change organizations will add value in new ways and new stakeholders will interact in new ways with the community’s resources and assets via the platform. SCaaP will increasingly bring all those actors and sectors together.

Philanthropic institutions supporting similar causes will be working together out in the open, ensuring all their resources and those supported through their grant-making are at the disposal of the community working to advance social change — not any one individual or institution. These efforts will be focused on maximizing the way value is derived and how the agency is built, shared and advanced throughout the network.

“The future of social change as a platform is a world of connected platforms working to solve society’s most pressing challenges more effectively as fast as possible.”

Key SCaaP Advantages to Nonprofits

Social change organizations that leverage their stakeholder’s networks as well as their tangible (programs and services) and intangible (expertise and relationships) assets will gain these and other advantages from embracing the SCaaP business model.

  • Decreases costs: Stakeholders willing to share their opinions, skills, relationships and even real assets for shared value to the cause, at a very low or near-zero cost, stretch an organization’s very scarce resources. Moreover, reinventing the wheel each time social change products and services are created lead to duplication and waste.
  • Deepens community engagement: Enabling meaningful ways for stakeholders to add value increases engagement and deepens understanding and strengthens these relationships. SCaaP enables anyone with a good idea to build innovative services that connect citizens to the cause of their choice, allowing citizens to more directly participate.
  • Increases organizational flexibility and decreases risk: Operating as a network increases an organization’s adaptability and speed. Work is more distributed and lends itself to self-organizing, which makes it highly responsive to changing needs. Allowing common functions to be implemented as shared utilities across social change organizations instead of replicating them in each silo also reduces risk.
  • Enhances transparency and accountability: SCaaP fundamentally shifts the power dynamic within the social change community. Grant makers work with community stakeholders as peers, helping them achieve full potential as individuals and their organizations.
  • Expands impact: Ultimately, scaling relationships lets an organization secure more value, which helps maximize social impact. As co-creating partners who have a vested interest in advancing a cause, stakeholders’ incentive to add value is clear. The platform’s success is their success.

To succeed, a clear and understandable pathway to adopting SCaaP is necessary for this large, untapped market.

Seven Steps to Embracing SCaaP Today

Social change as a platform is first and foremost a business strategy, a theory of change that needs to be integrated into every organization’s five-year strategic plan. That effort begins by identifying how and where an organization can accelerate the transition to a network-model across the entire organization. Specifically, organizations must assess their business model and inventory network assets, and start to reallocate resources and capital to networks as well as develop network key performance indicators (KPIs).

  • Choose the right platform. Platforms that embrace intelligence, speed, productivity, mobility, and connectivity empower social change organizations to take advantage of the most significant transformations taking place in enterprise software.
  • Select the relationships to scale. Identify all the key stakeholders for advancing your mission and indicate which relationships are the most important to scale. Be sure to include existing and potential relationships, including other partners and organizations that can add value.
  • Connect programs and services. Plot the organization’s various offerings — programs and services offers to various stakeholders — and map how each contributes value to advance the relationships with different stakeholders.
  • Convert the data into intelligence. A unified view of relationships and programs creates troves of data. Convert the data into useful, real-time intelligence integrated into the organization’s processes in real-time.
  • Drive one-to-one engagement. Real-time intelligence lets organizations engage more effectively with all.
  • Track what matters. It’s not just financial performance that matters, but also engagement, sentiment and co-creation. Create KPI’s for each of these items and add them to daily performance reviews.
  • Keep platforms, networks and intelligence at the center. Products and services are helpful, but in the final reckoning, it is the breadth and depth of the network that will create the scale of social change desired.

The biggest hurdle to SCaaP is changing the mental models and core competencies of the leadership team and board of directors. However, nonprofit organizations and academic institutions are better positioned to embrace SCaaP because they are more accustomed to imagining their community as active participants, instead of passive recipients. But it is critical that leaders significantly change how they embrace today’s technologies.

With SCaaP, the nonprofit world will have the potential to enact social change on a scale previously unimagined. It is time to take up the mantle because doing so can unlock the future potential of every human being. People are worth it.

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