NationSwell is kicking off 2020 with a series that looks back on our biggest moments of impact from 2019. In our fifth installment, we’re delighted to celebrate how NationSwell supported Microsoft in their journey to develop better tools and services for social impact organizations and beyond.
NationSwell: We were delighted to parter with the Microsoft Envisioning team last year. Can you tell our audience about the work your team does within Microsoft?
Microsoft’s Harald Becker and Ming-Li Chai: We work on this unique team that looks three to five years out, that uses research to try and reimagine how people will get things done in the future. We like to go out in the field, find interesting organizations and people and try to learn from them. Our research last year was focused on the future of work and how organizations are evolving in the future. Our thesis was that organizations are going to be more networked, working in ecosystems and platforms, and we had the idea to talk to social impact organizations because they have a unique environment and they’ve worked with a lot of different partners in complex environments. They’re trying to solve big, complex challenges and they’re very mission-driven.
NS: So interesting. And how did working with NationSwell support that mission?
M: It started with a co-hosted conversation on the power of networks. That was a fantastic experience and our first exposure to the kind of the magic NationSwell can create. There were amazing NationSwell Council (NSC) members at that dinner. We then shaped a plan to work together on a research project alongside the Studio team. It was a joint learning journey to better understand how social impact organizations thrive, with a thesis that we can learn from their tactics and strategies and apply those to other domains. Ultimately, as a technology company, Microsoft could then think about developing better tools and services to support those organizations in the future.
NS: Share a bit about the journey of the research project.
M: The project had three main components. For the first component, the Studio team organized interviews with 30 NSC members. It was a diverse representation of executive directors across different domains and industries as well as different sizes and social impact organizations. We conducted those interviews over the course of two or three months and there were a lot of amazing conversations. We also had a chance to come out to New York and bring a camera crew and we did some of those conversations on video, so we ended up with rich visual data that was awesome. Our team also spent a day and a half working with the Studio team at the NationSwell offices, both to understand some of the patterns we could detect from the interviews and to distill them into a clear set of key criteria that ultimately were the inputs for our final report. We were actually able to visit some of these amazing organizations.
There were two more things we did together that were very important to us. First, you created two video cases studies for us. [The videos] were very touching and you should see them — they’re really great. And the final piece was the salon you created and produced. We brought a whole bunch of Microsoft executives and stakeholders to the event and mixed them with NSC members. We had a half-day experience together where we unpacked some of our findings and we did some interactive table discussions. Our colleagues actually got a taste for what it means to operate in a social impact organization. It was a lot of fun and we got great feedback.
NS: What did this partnership and project mean for Microsoft? How did NationSwell ultimately impact your work?
M: It enriched our understanding and made us smarter about the dynamics that are important to make social impact organizations successful. We also got a sense for what some of the key challenges are. The project with NationSwell really helped us get a better, more nuanced understanding of those dynamics. There’s a lot of very superficial, high-level talk about what the future of work will look like and I think now we can actually bring a much more nuanced conversation to the forefront.
NS: Were there any internal perception shifts that took place as a result of our partnership and if so, can you describe them?
M: One of the key learnings was really the importance of purpose and mission in social impact organization’s work. We had an inkling about that before, but now we have a much clearer understanding. Yesterday’s announcement at Microsoft was all about purpose, mission and sustainability. So many employees were so excited about our articulation of purpose and mission and accountability and responsibility, and the work we did together really clarified that for us and made it a lot more tangible.
The exercises we did at the salon and visiting the social impact organizations… it touched people. We walked in with our heads and we walked away feeling in our hearts that people are devoting their energy towards something really bigger than themselves. We now talk a lot more about impact at Microsoft. Like “what’s your impact? What are you going to do?” It’s very closely aligned to the industry and the technology jobs and roles that we have. You can touch people’s lives in very profound ways. And there’s so many organizations focused on that and in tremendous ways. For some people, it was a bit of an awakening and that was very powerful and emotional for them as well.
We were super impressed with your team. Everybody at every level of the effort really brought the energy, brought the expertise and always had smile on their faces. We could feel that you care about your work and that was very stimulating for us. It was really a true partnership. It wasn’t like there’s a big firm hiring a vendor. I never really felt that dynamic at all and that was really great. You were challenging us and we learned a ton in the project.
NationSwell is always trying to learn more about how we’ve supported our Council members (and partners!) in their efforts to make the world a better place. If we helped you, we’d love to hear more about it. Let us know.