Excuse the grand title of this post, and bear with me for the next 5 minutes….

Life is, of course, all a matter of perception.  We see things from our own point of view, and that is fine most of the time.  Its not so fine when you are trying to solve a problem, when you need to see things differently.  For me, one thing social enterprises are well equipped to do (ideally) is see things differently.  If you see a problem differently, you then can see a solution differently.  Its not about doing things differently for the sake of it, but to try to use your situation (being a socially oriented business) to see a problem from a unique angle, and try to find an effective solution.  And sometimes the best solutions already exist, but they are not being used in the most effective way, or they are being used in isolation.  You don’t have to change everything to change the world!

I have been trying to get to grips with the much-talked-about «drop out» problem in Norway.  One of the aims of my social enterprise work is to find ways of reducing the number of young people leading unsustainable and unproductive lives, but you need to understand the problem before you can look for ways to help.

And this is where different perceptions got me thinking… When I spoke to NAV they felt they already had systems in place to help young people get into work (I provided a free mini-project to one of their partners, so I know they have some solutions, but they may not always be the best solutions or the whole solution…).  When I spoke to principles in Oslo secondary schools (I telephoned most of them to ask about what problems they felt they had with drop outs), most of them also felt they had solutions in place, and that there was not really a big problem anymore.  I almost felt a bit of indignation that I was asking!  In fact, the impression was that the drop out rate was falling now.  But when I talk to people involved in social work, the story is very different, that the number of young people who have «dropped out» is increasing and becoming more permanent.  So the reality is messy and complex and depends on your perception.

We were all talking about drop outs, but different types of drop outs.  A child who finishes secondary school is not a drop out from the school’s perspective, but if he or she is then unable to get into work, they fit the drop out format for NAV.  If NAV then gets them into a job, but that job does not last or help them to actually build a career, then from a social work perspective, then they are still a drop out risk.  Its all a matter of perspective, and the only long-term solutions involve different groups seeing things from different perspectives – its requires communication, or in modern snazzy terms «joined up services».

So what are the solutions?  I know that social enterprises like KREM Norge are filling some of these gaps by bringing, for example, different departments in kommunes together to see problems from different angles – breaking down the silos and barriers that exist in government departments all across the world (this is not a norwegian problem, but I think an inherent limitation to government, that most departments are not designed to work in areas outside their specific remit).

So here is a role for social enterprise – to be the ones that stand back and take a good look at a problem, and not just try to find a new solution (its not about the ego of being an «entrepreneur») but to find where the solutions may already exist and help draw them together.  Governments should embrace social entrepreneurship as partners to solutions, not alternatives.  Its about system thinking really, governments talking to charities talking to social enterprises talking to «traditional» enterprises.  Many of the solutions are out there, but they don’t know what other bits exist that can really make the solution effective.

So we should look at the gaps, not just what we think the solution is.  We should concentrate on identifying the gaps, the bits where a project did not quite fulfil its potential, why it didn’t and who can help it to be better.  Its about letting go of your ego as much as anything, and connecting with others that can contribute with you.  So the challenge may be one of human nature – finding collaboration rather than building and protecting what you do, because most solutions do not lie within one person’s head!

So if social enterprise is going to change the world (be the tip of the iceberg that changes the ways capitalism trades money for real-value), then we need to make collaboration a central them.  So in the spirit of collaboration, I welcome your comments, tell me if I am talking nonsense (I do from time to time!), tell me how collaboration needs to work, and how to we get social enterprises to really collaborate?