Design Thinking and Social Enterprises: A Solution‐Focused Strategy for Social Enterprise Research

Author:Alejandro Agafonow
DOI:http://doi.org/10.1111/emre.12152
Publication Date:01 Sep 2019
Design Thinking and Social Enterprises: A
Solution-Focused Strategy for Social
Enterprise Research
ALEJANDRO AGAFONOW
ESSCA School of Manag ement
Had we had the vantage point of centuries of experimentation with social enterprises, separating the wheat (i.e.,
successful social enterprises) from the chaff, empirical social enterprise research could be on the verge of making
a contribution.But since social enterprisesas a mass phenomenon are relatively new,the output of empirical research
must be taken very carefully because it may actually support doomed business models. It is thus submitted that a
design thinking approach to social enterprise research that involves a solution-focused strategy of knowledge
production is needed. The latter consists of addressing the internal inconsistencies of a well-established general
theory when trying to account for social enterprises, similarly to how a designer addresses the shortcomings of an
original chair design to come up with something more suitable. It is argued that a solution-focused strategy of
knowledge production will make scientific breakthroughs in the field of social enterprises possible.
Keywords: empirical research; social enterprise; design thinking; theory of the firm
Introduction
It is this paperscontention that, given thenovelty of social
enterprises and the possibility that they are built on ill-
conceived business models, or at least unproven ones,
we need to adopt a design thinking approach to social
enterprises that invo lves a solution-focused strategy of
knowledge production. The latter consists of addressing
the internal inconsistencies and gaps of a well-established
general theory when trying to account for social
enterprises, similarly to how a designer comes up with a
more restful chair by addressing the shortcomings of the
original design. Empirical social enterprise research can
only offer a problem-focused strategy that, d espite having
a place in knowledge production, has been overestimated
by empirical social scientists in their attempt to emulate
natural science. In the process, natural science has been
caricatured. We draw from philosophy of science to
illustratehow the progress of knowledgein natural and life
sciences has indeed been possible thanks to a solution-
focused strategy that puts scientists in the position of
designers to tackle the inconsistencies of accepted
theories, producing in the process new, improved ones.
This paper answers the question: What is preventing
progress in our understanding of social enterprises, the
lack of data or our views about what the relevant data
is? In doing so it contributes to raise awareness in the
academic community about the limits and actual
usefulness of empirical social enterprise research, which
in our view is muc h more modest t han its advocates t end
to admit. Besides, methodologists and PhD students will
find in this paper a compelling argument for theory-laden
social enterprise research, advising them about the perils
of research strategies that are unlikelyto go beyond trivial
conclusions. If ones research outcomes cannot take us
beyond truisms, not matter how much data was relied
upon, chances are that a rule-of-thumb heuristics is
driving ones inquiries, begging the quest ion of whether
valuable resources could have been put to better service
through the use of a well-established general theory. It is
only possible to see a little further by standing on the
shoulders of giants, as Isaac Newton posited.
To this end, two ambitious empirical research projects,
as well as the literature that buildsupon them, were chosen
for analysis as exemplars of empirical social enterprise
research because they overcome problems of insufficient
datasets and quality samples. The first project was
executed by a team from Harvard Business School and
the non-profitEchoing Green. The second projecttargeted
social enterprises affiliated to the Schwab Foundation for
Social Entrepreneurship.
Correspondence: AlejandroAgafonow, 55 quai AlphonseLe Gallo, 92513
Boulogne-Billancourt, Paris, France, Tel: +33 02 41 73 47 47. E-mail:
alejandro.agafonow@essca.fr
DOI: 10.1111/emre.12152
©2017 European Academy of Management
European Management Review, Vol. 16, 799, ( 2019)
813

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