The Guardian Social Enterprise Conference

I'm fresh from the Guardian Social Enterprise Conference where I was leading the 'clinic' on different forms of social enterprise / legal structures. Although tied up in the clinics most of the day I was amused in the opening plenary to hear one speaker contrast social enterprises and charities - and literally a minute later the next speaker almost opening with the words 'we are a social enterprise and a charity'. I've already shared my thoughts on this recently on the Guardian Social Enterprise Network - and also elsewhere on this website - so I won't repeat them here.

But there was another contrast that struck me in the Guardian plenary:while one speaker focussed on the importance of local action and local community control, others talked only about 'getting to scale' and working with big business.

Am I the only social enterpriser out there worried by the apparent thoughtlessness with which we slide around these perspectives?

Don't they relate in a very interesting way to a bigger political divide: that between the environmentalist and anti-globalisation 'small is beautiful' tradition and the old rightwing unlimited growth/freetrade orthodoxy?

Lets be clear: part of what social enterprise is about really is local responsibility and accountability.  Within our rejection of business models based on greed and exploitation, I believe, there should also be a decisive rejection of the BIG BLAND BRANDS culture of globalised business, the monocultural high street and remote call-centre.

Does this mean we can't grow or replicate?  I don't think so; but it DOES mean we can't grow in the same way as financially-driven businesses.  In this area, they have little to teach us.  I've argued elsewhere that our growth and franchise models need to develop our own social enterprise intellectual property standards - and organisational structures that combine efficiencies of scale and coherent image with elements of local participation and ownership - and supply chains that rely on local sourcing and fair trade, not just bulk deals - and a deep and detailed understanding of what can simply be replicated - such as an IT infrastructure - and what really needs to be local and quirky and individual.  This is complex stuff - and you'll be a long time looking for answers in the world of conventional business management and professions.

For me you see social enterprise is not just about solving particular social problems - although I agree this is the starting point of most social entrepreneurs - it has also to be about modelling new and better ways of doing business.  Any business.  All business.

Let's not forget in this unrequited love affair with 'scalability' what we all really know - don't we? - that the obsession with 'economic growth' actually has to end The real questions are: how should social enterprise grow richer in experience, not just income?  bigger, but less hungry for resources?  more widespread, yet more local?  familiar, yet still really extraordinary...