Editor's Note: NextBillion has launched month-long series on Housing for All in partnership with Ashoka. This special series coincides with two upcoming Ashoka publications on best strategies to achieve Housing for All, Ashoka's initiatives using its Hybrid Value Chain framework to leverage changes in the affordable housing sector in Brazil, Colombia and India. Please follow the series HERE and Join the discussion with your thoughts and insights.
What would happen if major global companies sent their employees to work with people in emerging economies for weeks at a time to get to know their cultures, needs and daily patterns of life? Not as "poverty tourism," but rather part of a strategy to have them see with the openness of a child all that is different, all that is happening, and all that is needed in their lives ... And then to think how that translates to product innovations.
For two years now, Dow Corning has operated a program called our Citizen Service Corps. Employees volunteer their time, but we pay their expenses, to go to countries where help is needed, and where new markets exist. Our mission: to DISCOVER, SERVE and INNOVATE.
We partner with CDC Development Solutions to handle the logistics of our program, while we prepare our teams for the "innovation" part of the project: enhancing their abilities to capture insights that may lead to new business opportunities. It's based on the simple idea of sensitizing EYES, EARS and MINDS.
Building on the experience of major design firms, we have learned how to have the "EYES of a beginner" -- how to put aside our biases and observe how people address problems and issues in everyday life. The EARS session practices how to ask effective questions to draw out key insights, information and priorities. In the final session, MIND, we modeled how to think about new business opportunities through the lens of a micro-entrepreneur: Is there a compelling need that we can answer in a way that creates value for us and for others to sustain a new business?
Last year we sent ten Dow Corning employees from around the world to India for a month to act as consultants for different organizations serving the poor. We did not have any prior relationship or specific interest in the organizations- we wanted to help and to learn.
One of the organizations we collaborated with in the field was Ashoka, which identifies and sponsors leading social entrepreneurs around the globe. Our team specifically worked on a project called Housing for All, supported by the Hilti Foundation. We helped a diverse alliance of affordable housing stakeholders, including citizens, builders, architects and engineers, community organizers and entrepreneurs to draft renewable energy integration standards into targeted low-cost, high value housing.
Apart from specific product development, as we worked in Housing for All, we experienced Ashoka's concept of a Hybrid Value Chain - premised on the creativity and refinement of ideas that emerge when different skills and perspectives (citizens, corporations, investors, innovators) work together to analyze problems and create together what good solutions would look like. Effective solutions must be good for citizens and profitable for business to make them sustainable. We are now exploring how to embrace this concept more fully in Dow Corning's business development activities.
The Citizen Service Corps program is a fantastic kick-start to the innovation process. The program alumni have brought back and shared so much from their work with entrepreneurs in the field, and the results continue to pay dividends. The organizations and their clients report tangible benefits from our team's contributions. The employees have become stronger leaders, their new skills and insights not wearing off over time. And our company has sharper focus on areas of need and opportunity in new markets. This is a scenario for spurring economic development, deeper human connections and a better future.
Dow Corning is not the first company to send employees on service projects. However, our intent goes beyond Corporate Social Responsibility and helping people in need (although altruism definitely is part of what motivates employees to go). By actively capturing insights on the context of life and needs in areas we have not understood, we expand our knowledge, broaden our perspectives and create valuable processes to shape innovation. This turns a program that could be viewed as a "cost" into an "investment." It also expands the potential benefits and impacts for all involved. Since corporate volunteerism integrating innovation is not yet widespread, maybe our experience can offer ideas that encourage other companies to try similar efforts.
Editor's Note: Chip Reeves is responsible for new and long-term product development at Dow Corning and oversees the incentives and skill-building his staff needs to be creative new market and product developers. One of these programs is the Corps he describes in this blog post and detailed here by two of his employees who volunteered in India in 2010 as part of this program.