Published in: European Management Review 16.3 (2019): 799-813.
Cited as: Agafonow, Alejandro. “Design Thinking and Social Enterprises: A Solution‐Focused Strategy for Social Enterprise Research.” European Management Review 16.3 (2019): 799-813.
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 enterprises as 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.
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1) A lesson that social enterprise research must incorporate from corporate governance scholarship is that the realization of an enterprise’s corporate purpose is not spontaneous or automatic, but it depends on governance mechanisms designed to tackle problems of opportunism, conflict of interests, and bounded rationality. Both, the empirical social enterprise research that this paper takes issue with and the theory-laden alternative advocated, assume for the sake of convenience that the fulfillment of the social enterprise’s mission is beyond doubt. A judicious scientific mindset would, however, be inclined to open the black box of social enterprises to examine whether suitable governance mechanisms are in place and how to design them.
2) Another challenge to be addressed is the analysis of the policy implications of social
enterprises. Because most enterprises in market economies are chartered as fiduciary entities operated by and for their owners, or on behalf of the residual claimants of profits, there is always room for a breach of the imperative to satisfy stakeholders and worst-off customers in particular. This is a market failure which has thus far been tackled with product liability legislations, antitrust regulations, a transparent judiciary, and consumer protection agencies. Social enterprises can be deemed to join this battery of corrective mechanisms whose policy implications merit more attention. Herein lies the future of social enterprise research.