03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Three I's of Corporate Social Innovation

The world of business is changing. Consumers are demanding more -- more value, more quality, more responsibility -- and more companies are striving to keep up.

As information becomes more transparent, people are starting to realize that brands are not siloed and that businesses touch many parts of our world and society. A bank is no longer just a bank; it's an international institution that can directly affect our daily lives (and livelihoods), which mean its operations are important to us.

The more a business remains an opaque brand, the bigger the disconnect between what it says and what it does. What's happening between the product factory in China and the glossy ad in Wired Magazine? Any misalignment of mission and action will invariably lead to consumer mistrust, resulting in people heading elsewhere to fill their needs around genuine authenticity.

Now is the time to gain ground and better the world. The industrial era modes of doing business (linear, resource extracting, need creating) have lead to many of the problems of our day. But many of these businesses were founded on socially driven missions -- to create better health care products and provide products that create joy for people. It's time to evolve these companies by using the new knowledge we've gained in the last era to correct abuses, realize latent potential, and realign mission with action. It's time to innovate and evolve those mission statements for the 21st century.

That's right. I'd like to see global brands using their mission to drive business and better the world. We're calling it Corporate Social Innovation (CSI).

In my opinion, CSI encompasses three 'I's: Innovation, Investment, and Impact.

1) Innovation
The greatest potential a company has for doing good are in the areas it affects on a daily basis and innovating within existing core competencies. Some argue that this is just good business. Exactly.

Start by looking at everyone the business touches -- shareholders, stakeholders, and consumers -- and create a collaborative relationship. How does everyone create more value for each other? Once seen through this lens, new opportunities will surface.

Producers can tackle supply chain issues by solving root problems like living conditions. Companies can create more holistic, socially oriented and powerful products by working across departments -- linking community investment, product development and marketing together. And companies can find new markets for their products through socially minded initiatives. All while inviting consumers to participate in the entire process.

I previously wrote an article on how social entrepreneurs offer a great testing bed for innovative models. Innovation must remain a core value of a company or incentives will quickly shift to maintaining market share instead of creating new value, which is not good business.

2) Investment
Real investment, by the virtue of the word, means a tie to those you touch. Good investment means that you do well when those you invest in (stakeholders, consumers and communities) do well, which incentivizes an additive approach -- that by nature is long term. Corporations have tons of opportunities for investment:

  • Shareholders and Employees People have a desire to create and leave behind something better -- a legacy of goodness in the world. Building the framework for employees and shareholders to realize their maximum potential as human beings realizes a company's potential in the process and gets everyone mutually invested. Of course, this means investing in the health and education of employees, allowing them to voice their opinions on how things can be improved, and encouraging employees to self-organize to do good. Offering purpose and fulfillment will attract the best and brightest to knock at the door. It's a win-win for everyone.
  • Supply chain and new models of business Investing in those who work with you offers huge opportunities for long term growth and the chance to grow business laterally. From a social entrepreneurship perspective, many new companies starting up are proving the success of innovative socially-based answers to market needs. Literal corporate investment in these new models holds huge potential for bettering operations and propelling these ways of doing business forward by offering them the chance to scale.
  • Community Companies have nothing if the communities they operate in are exploited to the point where they can no longer engage with your product -- that's bad morals and bad business. Investing in an educated, and able community is the best long term interest, which results in a stronger presence in the community thereafter.

3) Impact
This touches upon the other two, but it's essential to think about where you can do the most good possible. Many define it as charity but while charity is amazing, fulfilling, and the gift is a hugely powerful thing -- there are many ways of doing good that are long lasting solutions. Consumer education that generates awareness for new ways of doing good are also very powerful. If businesses no longer exploited poverty, we'll no longer need nonprofits to fight it. If we're no longer supporting wars and rainforest cutting through supply chains, we won't need rain forest preservation nonprofits.

Business has a huge potential to do good. We just need to think a little more innovatively. It'll be a lovely day when that happens!