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Perspectives on the role of business in social innovation

Fabien Martinez (Queen Mary University of London, London, UK)
Patrick O’Sullivan (Grenoble Ecole de Management, Grenoble, France) (Uniwersytet Warszawski, Warsaw, Poland)
Mark Smith (Grenoble Ecole de Management, Grenoble, France)
Mark Esposito (Grenoble Ecole de Management, Grenoble, France) (Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK)

Journal of Management Development

ISSN: 0262-1711

Article publication date: 12 June 2017




The purpose of this paper is to examine the conceptual construct of social innovation in business as distinct from social innovation implemented by civil society and the state. The general absence of sustained research and analysis of this phenomenon, and the dominance of grey and policy-oriented literature, mean that a broadly accepted definition of how social innovation theorises the changing role of business in society is missing


An integrative review of the representative literature on social innovation was conducted. The analysis focused on the key arguments made about the involvement of business actors in processes of social innovation and interweaved in this study to build a logically coherent definition of what social innovation in business means for the bulk of those who write and speak about it today. The scope of the literature review was expanded by integrating insights from the extant “business in society” and social innovation literatures, thereby adding clarity to the authors' conceptualisation.


The findings indicate that social innovation is best understood as a process driven by human relations, morality and creative capacity breaking routines and path dependencies. It fundamentally relies on the socially constructed dynamics between business and social actors who carry ideas, focus their energies, mobilise competences and create new complementarities to tackle social problems. Economic gain, in this approach, is at best an outcome of social innovation, not its engine.


What this literature review unveils that is unique about social innovation, and contributes to an enrichment of the “business in society” debate beyond the business case and win-win scenarios depicted by most scholars in this field, is that it best manifests itself as an informal social process that comes into existence at the margins of conventional ways of thinking and organising business activities. Business actors involved in social innovation are framed as self-directed and self-organised around the moral purpose of fostering social progress.



Martinez, F., O’Sullivan, P., Smith, M. and Esposito, M. (2017), "Perspectives on the role of business in social innovation", Journal of Management Development, Vol. 36 No. 5, pp. 681-695.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2017, Emerald Publishing Limited

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