What can business consultants learn from collaborating with social entrepreneurs? You guessed it, a lot!  As consultants we are in a position to contribute to change in many ways, if we dare to explore potential partnerships in unexpected places. Through collaboration with social ventures and other innovative organizations we can create real impact, get the opportunity to learn a great deal and create sustainable value for our clients at the same time. 

Sweden and the Nordic region are built on a solid foundation, one of a functioning welfare system. We depend on public organizations for health care, education, infrastructure and many other things. Yet sometimes changes happen so fast in society, that the welfare structure can have trouble catching up to the speed of change that is required. An increasingly common way of addressing this is for people with a passion to do good to start social ventures – and become social entrepreneurs.

Social entrepreneurs start ventures with the purpose of doing good. They assess the output of their companies’ operations according to the rule of the triple bottom line, measuring not only economic results but also social impact. In other parts of the world, where welfare structures are less dependable, social entrepreneurship has been common for a longer period. This has resulted in social ventures becoming a natural part in communities, and in order to achieve scale in the ideas of social entrepreneurs, organizations developed to support them. The non-governmental organization Ashoka was founded as early as 40 years ago, with the purpose of supporting social ventures globally. After almost 35 years in business, they opened their Scandinavian office, and when it was time to launch the first big Ashoka project in the Nordics, they needed help from partners in the region.

As a prominent consultancy firm with a strong Nordic identity, Acando (now part of CGI) got to be one of those partners. During mid’ 2018 to early 2019, we were part of the Hello Nordics project, an initiative aimed at supporting the process of scaling social ventures addressing issues related to integration in the Nordic region. Consultants got the opportunity to work alongside inspiring social entrepreneurs and guiding them through an accelerator designed by Ashoka. Read more about Acando's involvement with Ashoka here.

In the time that has passed since the final event and the end of the project’s main phase, I have had time to reflect on this initiative and on Acando’s involvement. I have also had the opportunity to discuss it with participants and partners. Apart from the fact that Hello Nordics has been a personally rewarding experience for those of us taking part in it, there are several important learnings that can be drawn from the project.

Firstly, Hello Nordics offered insight in Ashokas’ frameworks for system change.  System change is the way by which social ideas and solutions can be used to solve problems and create impact on a large scale. In some ways, it can be compared to when technology firms develop their products with a policy of open source. Ashoka encourages social entrepreneurs to always apply this way of thinking to their work. Entrepreneurs, and consultants alike, may struggle with the idea of letting go and separate their name from their solution, in order to grow exponentially. This struggle needs to be overcome in order to maximize the value created, argues Ashoka’s experts. This way of thinking was very humbling for me and many other project participants. In what way can we, as advisors and business developers, apply this to our vision of creating a more capable world? That surely needs to be investigated.

Second, the work collaboration between the participating consultants, acting as advisors, and the social entrepreneurs, showed the strength in combining different capabilities to achieve progress. The entrepreneurs are truly passionate individuals, with a clear goal and strong drive, but during the project, it became clear that our consultants could offer new perspectives and structure that the entrepreneurs might not have applied otherwise. In more than one case, it turned out that what could sound like simple solutions to the advising consultants, like setting up a stakeholder map, turned out to be very helpful to the social venture. This offers an interesting perspective on how much value we can create per invested hour, when working with small businesses.  

Lastly, Hello Nordics offered a very refreshing opportunity for collaboration in the project setting itself. In the process of designing, planning, executing and closing the project, Acando had the pleasure of collaborating not only with Ashoka, but with several competitors, customers and organizations that we would never have encountered in our day to day operations. This was in many ways a unique and highly inspiring experience, since it showed the efficiency that can be achieved in working together regardless of individual benefit. If we are serious about solving complex solutions in our day to day business, this type of cross-collaboration and partnering is probably something that we should consider applying when supporting our clients as well. It could be that the best solution is not provided by Acando or a competitor, but by a constructive partnership between the both of us, and possibly a third party with different perspective.

Business in general and consulting in particular, is not going to be more separated from social challenges in the future, more likely the other way around. In order to ensure that we can stay relevant to our clients, and contribute with value not only economically, but in all parameters of the triple bottom line, we must keep exploring and learning from innovative solutions, as well as collaborating with the people creating them.

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