Intelligent Engagement: The key to successful social enterprise

Inclusive Economy17 Jun 2014Will Mutua

Social entrepreneurs should take time to study and understand the context of the people they are trying to help.

It was almost exactly a year ago while attending the re:publica conference in Berlin when I first heard about the concept ‘Intelligent Engagement’. The person explaining the concept was Mark Kamau, user experience expert and the iHub UX Lab lead. Having had some engagement with clients in the social enterprise and NGO world, the concept struck a chord with me and the phrase stuck.

Intelligent Engagement is actually a pretty simple concept. Basically, it’s about taking a break to truly study, understand and appreciate the context of the problem you are trying to solve. In the case of many social enterprises, this has a lot to do with the context of the people they are trying to help, and understanding their socioeconomic and even political context.

For instance, take a social enterprise that is looking to leverage mobile technology to solve a health problem in a rural community. It is easy, with all the talk of the revolutionary nature of mobile technology, to assume that some kind of mobile app would be perfect solution to the problem, perhaps even an SMS-based application since the demographic target group is not likely to own smartphones. It sounds great, doesn’t it? And there is research backing up the effect of mobile telephony in developing nations.

So the entrepreneurs go ahead and engage the community at a high level and build something that really ‘should’ work as expected, only to find the solution is hardly taken up. ‘Why?’ they may ask. After all, it is simple to use, ubiquitous, baseline technology!

On closer inspection, the entrepreneurs may find that being a rural community, the people are mostly illiterate or semi-literate, and barely use SMS. They may also find that most of the people prefer to call their relatives rather than exchange text messages. This may be because their native language does not lend itself easily to writing in the default Latin script, or using the keyboard on a baseline feature phone is too cumbersome, or perhaps the majority of the population in this rural setting is at an age where their sight is not so good; in fact they don’t even use the phonebook function but have the most important contact numbers written on a paper somewhere that they refer to when they need to make a call.

In this case, the social enterprises made the mistake of making a cursory observation of their audience that led to an ill-fitting solution, and wasted time, effort and finances.

This is a simple example, where the problem can be pinpointed fairly easily and rectified, perhaps in this case by introducing a voice-based solution. However, other scenarios can be more daunting and harder to frame. This is especially the case when dealing with underlying cultural differences. Entrepreneurs may bring in a solution where they would like to engage the youth of a community in certain activities, only to realize that there is a low turnout of males compared to their female counterparts. There could be a subtle, unspoken cultural norm that young men are not allowed to associate themselves with young women before marriage. The entrepreneurs may need to redesign their approach, perhaps engaging elder members of the community with the group to make it a more acceptable situation.

Perhaps more than other forms of enterprise, social entrepreneurs need to take a more anthropological approach, taking time to study and understand the context of the people they are trying to help, so as to avoid making costly mistakes. Social enterprise more often than not touches humans and the human condition directly. It is not just about making and selling a product, but making a difference in peoples lives. It therefore only stands to reason that social entrepreneurs should make that extra effort to understand the people they are trying to help, and engage them intelligently.