Dramatic transformations to historically stable institutions are creating exciting opportunities to study the processes of institutional change. The reverberations of globalization, technological innovation and social media dominance are forcing governments to shift to new structures and processes.
Some of the shifts required are atypical, demanding creativity and ingenuity. Some of the most interesting people responding to this call are the entrepreneurs or change agents within organizations, also known as institutional entrepreneurs.
Sociologist Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt was one of the first individuals to coin the term “institutional entrepreneur” to refer to people who have created ways to elicit fundamental changes to certain structures and processes. In essence, these are people who achieve systemic change in institutions through scaling and spreading effective processes, leading innovation through creative problem-solving and using systems thinking to design new approaches for a collective impact.
Institutional entrepreneurs are particularly motivated to change systems and to better meet public needs. They also tend to hold a belief that systemic issues and complex problems can be tackled. They have the ability to attract new resources or shift existing flows, and can help change social norms.
A good example of institutional entrepreneurship is the Alberta Youth Justice Committee Program, which was recognized by the Institute of Public Administration of Canada (IPAC) for an Innovative Management award in 2002. This ‘revolution’ in youth justice in Alberta began with the creation of the first youth justice committee in Fort Chipewyan, an aboriginal community. Promoted and implemented by an executive director in the young offender branch, this highly successful program enabled members of the community to work with young offenders through the committee, providing a more effective approach to dealing with youth offenders.
In the wake of the deep austerity faced by governments, public organizations everywhere are repeatedly asked to “do more with less.” Unfortunately budget cutting, typically an exercise in using the blunt instrument of across-the-board cuts, is more about “doing more of the same, but with less money.” The result, however, tends not to be more for less but less for less.
In addition, effective execution and planning of projects can be overwhelmed by other types of obstacles, for example: silos, lack of resources, poor staff morale, complexity of problems and the organizational failure to capitalize on employees’ full skill sets. In many ways, budget cuts exacerbate these issues. However, within the challenges that “doing more with less” presents, there are opportunities.
Institutional entrepreneurs endeavour to demonstrate new ways and possibilities to meet the needs of the public even with the challenges of meeting the ongoing demands of a leaner government. Their actual successes are reflected in their abilities to informally influence their networks (whether bridging disconnected groups or working with a more cohesive group) and implementing changes through a variety of mechanisms which complement more formal processes.
As the Alberta Youth Justice Committee Program shows, when institutional entrepreneurs are able to diagnose and resolve a problem that is within their control, or find different ways to contribute to the needs or goals of an organization, there can be unexpected benefits.
Our assumption, however, is that while innovation may be recognized in an organization, the institutional entrepreneurs themselves are not always identified or recognized for their ingenuity. While they do not achieve their successes individually, the environment for these ideas to come forward are important. This is why we believe that it is critical to recognize, formally support and, most importantly, be open to learning more about how institutional entrepreneurs go about leading change.
Organizations can support institutional entrepreneurs by considering how change agents can thrive within existing structures. Formal structures could be re-conceptualized, not as constraints to innovation within an organization, but rather as a stage where change agents can implement their ideas and activate their resources through non-hierarchical methods. In return, organizations will build employee engagement and leverage strengths from diverse and unexpected sources of intellectual capital by unlocking the deft human potential within our systems.
With the coming of the next generation workforce, we see a reinvigorated public service of excellence in Canada – one that is thriving with self-identified institutional entrepreneurs who are equipped with the essential skills to greet the complexities of the 21st century.
This article is a lead-up to initiating a Community of Practice on Institutional Entrepreneurship in the government of British Columbia.