A Co-creation Approach to Social & Business Impact


Magazine article

A Co-Creation Apprach to Social and Business Impact. Today’s Approach is not the Approach of Tomorrow

by Arnaud Mourot and Sarah Jefferson

Today’s global challenges, such as climate change, overburdened health systems, long-term unemployment, and lack of basic access to food and water, to name a few, are so large and so complex that they require a different problem-solving approach. A single business, government or social sector entity is simply not equipped to tackle today’s complex world challenges alone; rather finding the solutions requires diversity of perspective, approach and capability. It requires a new type of collaboration that looks very different from the traditional business, government or corporate social responsibility (CSR) approach.

The current CSR approach is commonly used to mitigate risks such as environmental damage and to engage employees in low-barrier, “feel good” activities that do not necessarily connect to the company’s core business. Companies often adopt a model where they provide grant funding to social sector entities, which then implement the agreed upon activities and report back to the company on impact achieved. Under this funder/service provider relationship, a company’s social responsibility to society is essentially “outsourced” to the social sector, which has the longstanding expertise and community access to perform social good. This model has prevailed over the past decades; however, it is ill-suited for the growing complexity and large-scale nature of world challenges. Instead, partnerships that leverage the unique competencies, know-how and networks of sectors and industries – beyond only financial contribution – will increasingly prevail. These collaborations are a win-win for all parties involved, as they not only achieve social (including environmental) impact; they also simultaneously create new business and customer solutions in a rapidly evolving world.

What is Co-Creation?

The time is ripe for co-creation across sectors. Social entrepreneurs and social sector organizations are looking for greater impact and scale. Businesses are looking for new markets, ways to remain competitive and relevant in the future, and purpose for their employees. Public institutions are looking for cost efficient approaches. These diverse actors can pool their strengths and expertise for a social and economic impact that they could never achieve alone.

Co-creation is a collaborative process where players from across different sectors – such as companies, social sector organizations, financial institutions or government bodies – come together to co-design and co-implement new or improved products and services that address essential needs of underserved populations. While the process is a co-creation – peers working across sectors hand-in hand to design and implement solutions based on a shared vision – the result is to address society’s challenges at scale while achieving economic gains. Co-creation represents a fundamental shift in interaction between the business, social and public sectors to create shared value.

In addition to changing the rules of the game to create both social and economic value, a true co-creation across sectors will also result in important transformations within the entities involved. Partners begin to capitalize on one another’s complementary assets and experiences, and as values begin to cross-pollinate, internal leadership styles and organizational structures evolve. Co-creation therefore becomes a powerful force for internal culture change for all entities within the partnership.

An emerging example of co-creation is the partnership between Boehringer Ingelheim and Ashoka. To the collaborative alliance, Boehringer Ingelheim brings its longstanding international business acumen in health, specifically pharmaceuticals, while Ashoka contributes its deep expertise in social entrepreneurship and how social systems change. Launched in 2011, Making More Health is a global initiative, currently operating in over 30 countries, whose ambitious vision is to improve health systems worldwide, particular those health systems which are plagued by barriers such as no access to care and misaligned incentives. Boehringer Ingelheim and Ashoka engage at the intersection of social entrepreneurship, employee talent development and business strategy in order to identify, support and scale new solutions to global health challenges.

The Origins of Making More Health

Boehringer Ingelheim and Ashoka met in 2010 through a matchmaking process. Celebrating its 125th anniversary – and wanting to do more than the typical employee event – Boehringer Ingelheim sought out a new type of partnership, aiming to have much larger and more sustainable impact on the health sector. Guillaume Deprey of Perfethic, a France-based consultant who conducts matchmaking between the business and social sectors introduced BI and Ashoka. “I immediately saw the shared DNA and values between Boehringer Ingelheim and Ashoka”, noted Deprey. “It was clear to me that there was a huge potential to do something together, much bigger than what they were currently doing in terms of ‘business as usual.’”

Investing in society has been part of Boehringer Ingelheim’s DNA since its formation over 125 years ago. The company has a longstanding tradition of social commitment instilled by its founder Albert Boehringer. Moreover, Ashoka’s work fit well with Boehringer Ingelheim’s core values of leadership and innovation, which the company sums up in a single vision: Value through Innovation. Likewise, social innovation has run through Ashoka’s veins since it was founded back in 1981 when it coined the profession of “social entrepreneur” and sought to support the leaders behind the most innovative solutions to pressing societal issues. Today, Ashoka supports over 3,000 social entrepreneurs (called Ashoka Fellows) with systems-changing innovations across nearly every field of work, providing them with strategic and financial support so that they can take these innovations to scale.

Despite cultural and language differences between the two entities, Boehringer Ingelheim recognized that strategic partnerships with civil society can bring about solutions to social challenges, including new business models to respond to the needs of the four billion people in the world without access to health care. Boehringer Ingelheim recognized a network of social entrepreneurs as a powerful source of innovation and insight into the future of health. Furthermore, these leaders could build an inspirational force for motivating the company’s employees, and potential recruits, giving an additional meaning to a new way of living out Boehringer Ingelheim’s longstanding corporate vision.

Boehringer Ingelheim’s decision to partner with a non-traditional player like Ashoka was further motivated by the challenges faced by the pharmaceutical industry in general: issues of intellectual property, pricing strategy and market access call for out-of-the-box solutions as well as new ways of working in global structures and external partners and institutions across the globe. Boehringer Ingelheim saw the growing “base of the pyramid” population as an important customer to reach and recognized that new approaches to health care had be to taken to fulfil these patients’ needs.

Thus the initiative Making More Health was born. In 2010 the two organizations formed a pilot program that consisted of supporting a small number of social entrepreneurs in four countries, elected as Ashoka Fellows and who would be affiliated with Boehringer Ingelheim as Making More Health Fellows. In 2011, an official, three-year, US$13 million partnership was begun, whose activities spanned launching and engaging a cohort of 50 new social entrepreneurs working in health; supporting 300 teams of young people to start their own “more health” community ventures; sponsoring two global open source collaborative competitions in “more health;” creating opportunities for high potential executives to work “in residence” with social entrepreneurs; and conducting field-based trends analysis at the intersection of social innovation and health.

A True Co-Creation is a Give and Take

These past three years of co-creation between Ashoka and Boehringer Ingelheim have come with ample challenges and learnings. A major one is that co-creation comes with ambiguity; you need to give yourself permission to work in a discovery mode and through an iterative process of learning. Back in 2011, at the early stages of the partnership, Boehringer Ingelheim and Ashoka had the shared goal of building an initiative that brought value to both business and society, and at a large scale; but we did not know exactly what or how to go about achieving this. Three years later, through this discovery journey, we have a much clearer idea. In addition to being comfortable with ambiguity, we have identified several other building blocks that make a successful co-creation:

  • Co-creation has a long runway: Co-creation is not a quick win with instantaneous measurable impact; by design co-creation is a lengthy process in that it is about finding a common playing ground where partners can contribute their skills and expertise to increase the impact of the whole. As such, it takes time to understand how the entities involved will work together as peers and find the right balance between comfort and risk as partners. For Making More Health, it took over one year to trickle down the partnership to Boehringer Ingelheim and Ashoka’s local country offices and to raise the necessary uptake of awareness and engagement among employees.
  • All sides need to be willing to invest in knowledge capital: Co-creation is much more than investing money; it is about investing the knowledge capital of your organization into a partnership – from your human resources to your resources related to operational capabilities. Boehringer Ingelheim has contributed diverse knowledge capital to Making More Health, demonstrated by the diversity of employees who are contributing time to this initiative. The team is transversal, with members from Corporate Social Responsibility and Communications/PR departments, but also from Strategy & Development, Innovation, Information Systems and Human Resources departments. The team is also diverse in its vertical representation of employees, from training and human resource managers in local country offices, to managing directors and country managers sitting on the initiative’s cross-functional Steering Committee. This makes for a rich set of organizational experience and skills contributing to making Making More Health a sustainable initiative organization-wide.
  • Success involves bringing it home: Co-creation is not only about contributing your skills and strengths; it involves cross-pollination of each entity’s skills and strengths. And this in turn begins to challenge customary internal processes and structures. A good example of this is the way Boehringer Ingelheim has managed to institutionalize Ashoka’s Executive in Residence program into its standard Global Talent Development Program, making it a key offering to executives passing through this process.
  • Expect and embrace barriers: As for any innovative and complex process, failure occurs and is the path to learning and identifying solutions.

Having all these building blocks in place requires a deep level of trust. ‘Trust’ is a word that often arises in interviews and conversations with Boehringer Ingelheim and Ashoka employees. Working together through co-creation, we have naturally developed an ability to see from each other’s perspectives and to find compromise when perspectives differ.

Ashoka and Boehringer Ingelheim are now preparing for a second phase of the partnership. The second phase (2014 thru 2016) will take the learnings and insights into social innovation in health identified during phase one and apply them to testing innovative approaches to health care delivery in a specific health area and region. These field initiatives will integrate the work of various social entrepreneurs working with holistic solutions across the continuum of health care where social entrepreneurs could give support in areas such as education, prevention, diagnosis and management in order to reach new populations, and ultimately increase access to care for underserved populations (see some examples of insights gleamed from Making More Health Fellows below.) Eventually, our vision is to attract additional partners to work with us in co-creation mode, broadening the number of stakeholders who share our commitment to social innovation and cross-sector collaboration.

We have identified 50 new health social entrepreneurs (i.e. Ashoka Fellows) around the world driving new solutions across the areas of primary health care, chronic care, nutrition, sanitation, mental health, disability, and many other areas. Together they are touching more than six million direct beneficiaries. We have also engaged over 3,000 Boehringer Ingelheim employees (nearly 10% of the company’s overall workforce) in Making More Health activities, including employees working “in residence” at the organizations of social entrepreneurs for anywhere from two weeks to six months. Through a business model vetting process, Boehringer Ingelheim and Ashoka have also identified two projects led by social entrepreneurs (one aimed at diabetes management and the other focused on enlarging the pool of clinical trial research), which will now receive pro-bono support from employees on specific strategic needs.

However, the impact extends much further to many intangible benefits for Boehringer Ingelheim and Ashoka, and for society at large. For each of pillar of activities under Making More Health, we have identified multiple layers of impact. Boehringer Ingelheim employee Kim Gacso, Executive Director of Global Leadership Development and who was instrumental in integrating the Executives in Residence program into Boehringer Ingelheim’s current global development modules, sums up the impact well: “I am so proud of Boehringer Ingelheim for playing ‘outside of the box’ with Making More Health. This is an initiative that many people did not understand at first; particularly how it would add value to our pharmaceutical business.

We have opened ourselves up to a whole new world; Making More Health offers us the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of new markets (markets that we are not as familiar with), gain access to creative ideas and perspectives (driving innovation for us) and meet Ashoka Fellows (the true definition of leaders in my book) who are making massive systemic change with very limited resources and budget.” Through working across these multiple layers of impact, and through continuous, iterative co-creation, we will ensure strong, sustainable social and business outcomes.

A Call to Action to Co-Create

Normalizing co-creations between the social and business sectors will significantly expand the solution-set to complex global challenges, thus unleashing potential innovations that are inconceivable at the moment. The co-creation process itself allows for additional benefits; mainly an emphasis on the organizational management, internal culture shift and employee engagement necessary for 21st century entities to realize and sustain large-scale social and business impact. Co-creation is about personal engagements; it’s about the individuals that make up the company, and not the company itself. Success is thus dependent on employees of co-creating entities being equipped with a very different skill-set than traditionally valued. These skills are empathy, teamwork, leadership and changemaking (the ability to lead solutions and take self-initiative.) These are the fundamental skills necessary for co-creation.

As we envision new possibilities for co-creation between the business and social sectors, we are restructuring the world system as we know. Co-creation models break down historical silos and begin to dismantle over a century of static delineations between the mission, values and cultures of the corporate versus social sectors. We find ourselves confronted with a gray zone of structures, purpose and roles. Change comes with many challenges. Since the landscape for co-creation is very early-stage, corporations can see working in this way as risky and time-consuming, versus the perceived lower risk of retaining their traditional service provider partners. On the other hand, social sector organizations can be wary of working closely with corporations, which are often perceived as bureaucratic and adverse to change. In order to navigate this ambiguity and inspire corporations and social sector entities to explore new frontiers, pioneers testing co-creation must step up to contribute to a practical working knowledge of best practice approaches and specific how-to’s. Business and social sector leaders, especially the intra/entrepreneurs within these structures, have the opportunity to accelerate and concretize the current movement aimed at changing the way social and business sectors operate, perceive one another, and work together to overcome complex systematic social and business challenges.

This article is tagged under:

  • Civil society
  • Charity selection
  • Government, legal and tax issues
  • Impact measurement
  • International giving
  • Inspirational donations
  • Philanthropy stats & trends
  • Promoting philanthropy
  • Understanding philanthropy