Addressing the grand challenges of the future is impossible without widened participation in social innovation. If so, it makes a great deal of sense to consciously nurture the skill sets that enable successful social innovation by diverse individuals and teams. However, what exactly are these skills?

Social innovation skills – unchartered waters

Surprising as it is, social innovation skills have hitherto been defined and investigated only to a limited extent. Indeed, relevant research has largely focused on commercially driven innovation or social entrepreneurship.

In terms of business innovation, a major study of 3,500 executives has argued for five particular skills: associating, observing, questioning, experimenting and networking, a set dubbed as ‘the innovator’s DNA’. In everyday innovation contexts, openness to ideas, original problem solving abilities and motivation are the top three characteristics for innovative working. Regarding key attitudes and skills to successfully drive innovation in government and solve public problems, NESTA has recently developed a competency framework for public sector innovators, highlighting competencies for experimenting and public problem-solving, along those for accelerated learning, and working together, as notable in this context.

Entrepreneurship competencies, including social entrepreneurship skills, have been recently outlined in the European Commission’s Entrepreneurship Competence report, based on a review of the work of organisations and people such as AshokaEMESDees and Orhei, to mention a few. The authors of the report state that ‘the competence-set relevant for traditional entrepreneurs and innovators does not necessarily need to be replaced. What changes is the wider perspective that expands the generation or expansion of economic value with the generation social value’ (page 48).

However, none of the above, nor almost 50 other recent publications we had reviewed could concisely identify the most crucial social innovation skills individuals and teams must develop to have impact, at least not in a broad context of how social innovation is defined. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s Skills for Social Innovation report (2016) focuses solely on integrating social innovation into the corporate world, i.e. it investigates the ‘implications of integrating social impact and driving social innovation on how companies source staff and develop their skills within the core organisation and throughout the supply chain’. As the team developing the EU-funded Social Innovation Academy, we have therefore attempted to address this gap.

In search of answers

To identify the skill set that can make someone a successful social innovator and contribute to building the Social Innovation Academy, the team of ICAN Research guided by Limitless has conducted broad qualitative and quantitative research both among potential and already successful social innovators.

We have built upon existing mappings of social innovation initiatives to identify a representative baseline set of successful social innovation initiatives in Europe. Based on this we have created categories for “successful” and “potential” social innovators, operationalising both concepts. We define a “social innovator” as a person who implements an innovation that is social both in its ends and its means. However, the insights from the first stage of the research have shown that it is not enough to merely implement social innovation to become successful. What makes one successful is that the social innovation is sustained after the end of the project and, ideally, that it is scalable. Thus, we have created a clear division between successful and potential social innovators by asking them if their project was continued after its completion for a minimum of two years or if it was scalable to other societies or contexts. Only those who fulfilled those conditions were included in the successful social innovators group.

Read more at the LSE Business Review