Can lessons from the  Social Enterprise Network social enterprise movement be rolled out around the world, succeeding where Napoleon failed?

When the French want to go global, it somehow looks suspicious to the rest of the world. Remember Napoleon, the French tactical master seeking to conquer Europe. On top of his military ambitions, he abolished serfdom and established the French civil code; yet he failed to disseminate his ideas. What can we learn from this?

My organisation, Groupe SOS, is the leading French social enterprise with 10,000 employees, £500m in revenue, and over a million beneficiaries each year. We developed a wide range of activities, aiming to tackle the five big social issues as we have identified them. Health first, with a number of hospitals and medical care facilities. Care for the elderly in our retirement homes. Housing, for the homeless, the low-income populations, the drug addicts. Youth, from nurseries to youth offenders facilities. And finally employment, in particular with our Work Integration Social Enterprises (WISE). After numerous travels around the world in order to exchange ideas and share expertise, it dawned on me: why try to reinvent the wheel? I’m convinced we can use our almost 30 years of experience in the sector, to replicate the business model throughout the world. But how to avoid a new Waterloo?

Given that we live in a globalised world from an economic viewpoint, but in a local world from a social viewpoint, a major issue is whether we can adapt to the local context. Standardised approaches are in that regard a severe tactical mistake: it is crucial that we tailor our services to the needs of different populations living in different environments.

Unemployment issues in South Korea, for example, differ a lot from France, including their low unemployment rate. That is why we partnered with local authorities in Seoul to replicate our WISE project primarily aimed at disadvantaged youth in French suburbs, adapting this in Korea to the needs of North Korean refugees. We must we create partnerships to best respond to the needs of the people we serve.

Another key point is the relationship between the social entrepreneurship sector and the state. Its political nature makes it highly sensitive: a trust bond needs to be nurtured for a collaborative development of social enterprises in any country. The establishment of the sector thus cannot be a coup d’état but should complement the state in the exercise of its prerogatives. For instance, following the Tunisian revolution, we developed the Lab’ESS (a social entrepreneurship advocacy organisation) in order to introduce the concept, put it to the test, and ultimately spread it. Though it is impossible to start a social enterprise from scratch in Tunisia, doing business became possible once these primary steps were accomplished. Depending on the countries, this obstacle may become an opportunity to create a favourable environment for social enterprises, by influencing the legal environment of the country, as well as raising institutional and on-the-field awareness about what they are capable of.

Despite these complex yet necessary approaches, the sector grows. Beyond the numerous studies that acknowledge this movement, my observations from travels across continents have led me to the same conclusion. But this growth is not homogeneous, and sometimes even paradoxical. It is indeed easier for social enterprises to develop in the Anglo-Saxon world than in China, because of both lack of awareness in society (usually going hand in hand with a strong separation between the public and private sectors, and civil society), and the predominance of the state. However, it also appears that socialist Venezuela makes it hard for social enterprises to thrive, while we enjoy many opportunities to launch subsidiaries in the liberal United States.

Keeping in mind these heterogeneous environments, the capacity building of the movement is also led on a larger scale by institutions, such as the European Union’s Social Business Initiative which aims at providing a framework for the development of social entrepreneurship across Europe. This promising outlook is strengthened by worldwide communities of actors that work towards a global conscience. One of them is Euclid Network, which greatly assists us in our globalisation programme.

We now have programmes in 30 countries. Yet a lot remains to be achieved, in particular in Britain where we still haven’t set foot: could we succeed where Napoleon did not?

Nicolas Hazard is vice-chairman at Groupe SOS and chairman at Le Comptoir de l’Innovation, company which invests, supports and promotes the development of social enterprises around the world. He is also part of the European Commission social business expert group (GECES). Nicolas is the co-author of the essay “L’entreprise du XXIe siècle sera sociale (ou ne sera pas)” published in 2012. Follow him on Twitter@nicolashazard and read his blog here.

This content is brought to you by Guardian Professional. To join the Guardian Social Enterprise Network, click here.

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