International Corporate Volunteerism: Seeking Insight for Innovation

International Corporate Volunteerism: Seeking Insight for Innovation

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Laura Asiala discusses linking ICV programs to business: She'll discuss it more at @CDCDevSolutions' #ICVConf! #CSR

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012 - 6:30pm

This guest blog article, by Laura Asiala, Director of Corporate Citizenship, Dow Corning, originally appeared on Dow Corning's Citizen Service Corps website.

“Discover; Serve; Innovate” became our theme for the Citizen Service Corps as we developed and launched our first group in 2010. I’ve mentioned before the importance of understanding the order of that priority, and for us, it was driven by innovation. With that clarity, it was easy to see that we would need a direct link to our business development group, known at Dow Corning as the “Business & Technology Incubator,” and we had it, in the person of Chip Reeves, manager of Discovery in the B&TI. 

Chip’s career at Dow Corning has covered many markets and continents, and his current responsibilities include discovering market opportunities in which we currently do not participate (sounds like a good match, no?). But what Chip brought most profoundly to our program was a different way of looking at the world: design.

Have I mentioned yet that we are a specialty materials company? We don’t make the things you buy; we make the things you buy possible. We hire lots and lots of engineers and scientists—remember those kids with the calculators hanging off their belts from your high school days? Yeah, they work here now (and they’re really good and really smart).

We don’t hire a lot of artists, and when we do, they are more likely to work in our communications group than in our business development group. Chip changed that—well, at least a little—when he started the Industrial Design Program at Dow Corning.  And that group started looking at the ways our materials looked and felt—and more importantly—the properties which our materials could lend to new products being designed by our customers, as well as their safety, efficacy, and efficiency in use.  With our new emphasis on design, we had the capability to bring art and science together in service to our customers and to improve their customers’ experiences of their products.

This approach also opened us up to the new ways designers were looking at markets, and as a gift to all of us by IDEO, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation:   “Human Centered Design Toolkit: a free innovation kit for social enterprises and NGOs worldwide”. 

With these and other materials, Chip developed the three modules that we use to educate our international corporate volunteers before they embark on their adventure to “discover, serve, and innovate.”

  • Eyes of a Designer
  • Ears of a Journalist
  • Mind of an Entrepreneur

We equip our volunteers with simple cameras and specific instructions on how to “see” the world in which we live in new ways. In fact, this is one of the first pre-work sessions, so our volunteers have a couple of weeks to practice in their own homes and communities. We especially look for ways people use items in unintended ways to solve problems they might not even realize they have (a pencil used as a hair stick; a shower cap protecting a bike seat from rain).

In another pre-work session, volunteers learn the art of asking the question behind a question. The reality is, a lot of times we don’t know why we do what we do. Timothy D. Wilson explains this brilliantly in his book RedirectThe reality is that human beings don’t always know why they do what they do. His advice is not to ask directly because people “Don’t know. Can’t tell.” Watch, and then listen with new ears.

The final lesson in market ethnography we uncover is to convert these insights into potential business ideas by considering “desirability, feasibility, and viability.” I once had the privilege of listening to Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, speak about innovation. I walked away from the presentation with this important point:  don’t try to solve problems people don’t think they have. 

By watching and listening, we can better divine the problems in people’s lives and then come with a solution that would be desired. That has to come first. Then, we need to ask if providing that solution is feasible. Is the solution possible?  Can we do it (or can someone else do it)? And finally, we need to be able to provide the solution at an affordable point, for which the costs to deliver it are less than the price the market will pay. That’s profit, and for any business to be sustainable, it’s required.

It’s through these lessons we found the source of our “strategic insights” and business ideas which become part of business discovery efforts. There is direct tie into the business we want to develop in markets we do not serve, or do not serve as well as we think we could today.

Next month, I will have the privilege of leading a break-out session at the Third Annual International Corporate Volunteer Conference in Washington D.C. regarding this approach. International Corporate Volunteer (ICV) programs are an efficient and impactful way for companies to meet multiple objectives with regards to employee development, corporate social responsibility, and business development. I’m eager to work with other professionals on this topic and help answer their questions behind our question about program objective because, that’s easy.  We’ve been clear from day one – our focus is insight for innovation.