Business

Are we experiencing a sea change in intrapreneurship?

A group of people sitting around a boardroom table, illustrating the potential of intrapreneurship

Intrapreneurship can be invaluable for existing organizations of all sizes. Image:  Unsplash/Redd F

Ben Attle
Co-Managing Director, Circle of Intrapreneurs
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Emerging Technologies

  • The term intrapreneurship was first coined in the 1970s in the context of corporate organizations.
  • Support is now emerging to cultivate intrapreneurship in start-up environments, as well as non-profits and public organizations.
  • Intrapreneurship now looks different from organization to organization, as well as between geographies and sectors.

The most famous examples you’ve likely heard of intrapreneurship are Sony’s Playstation, Google's Gmail and 3M’s Post-it notes. Ask yourself what these examples have in common.

Intrapreneurship was first coined in the 1970s – principally in the context of corporate organizations in a paper titled Intra-Corporate-Entrepreneurship. While entrepreneurs were creating start-ups, intrapreneurs were changing corporations from within. Intrapreneurs were corporate changemakers.

In recent years, we have seen intrapreneurship expand into a variety of different environments, the public sector, third-sector, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), as well as increasingly taking a social dimension in the form of social intrapreneurship and systemic intrapreneurship.

Yet, when someone says intrapreneurship what do you think of? What does it look like to you? Largely, it’ll be intrapreneurship as done in large corporations.

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Intrapreneurship in SME environments

Firstly, intrapreneurship has often been discussed in the context of established, existing and even entrenched organizations. That is to say, large organizations. To an extent this makes sense, these are environments with relatively abundant resources.

The restrictions placed on intrapreneurship in larger organizations, however, are regularly highlighted; the general inertia, reduced personal autonomy and control systems that can stifle, rather than enable, innovation. These restrictions are summarised nicely in the Corporate Immune System - which does its best to keep the system running by the status quo. Much of the advice and support provided to intrapreneurs is, therefore, about how to navigate this type of immune system.

Many factors lead to smaller organizations being suitable places for intrapreneurs – where the need for organizational survival is tempered in mature organizations, the opposite is true in an SME context.

Across smaller private and non-profit organizations there is less time, capacity and money to waste; more must be achieved with less. Given a smaller size, employees have greater visibility of overall activities, as well as a better sense of organizational strategy. In an SME, this is boosted by greater access to key decision-makers, as it is more commonplace to be managed or in closer proximity to the owner or founder.

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This empowers would-be intrapreneurs – in contrast to a larger organization, where a traditional line management relationship places more emphasis on stability (maintaining the status quo), rather than innovation. Support is now emerging to cultivate intrapreneurship in start-up environments.

A UK example of this is Studio Zao’s unlocking opportunities programme; an 'intrapreneurship business growth accelerator' sponsored by Richmond Borough Council for SMEs to “create new business and services while creating new jobs.” Needless to say, the vast majority of organizations are small, so could a greater impact be seen from intrapreneurship if it were to become increasingly pervasive across organizations of all sizes?

Intrapreneurship in non-profits and public organizations

After 20 years of supporting accomplished social change leaders, the Schwab Foundation recognized public social intrapreneurs for the first time in 2019; selecting seven candidates that best represented what it meant to be a public sector changemaker. Similarly, Good Innovation recently promoted intrapreneurship in the non-profit sector in its 2023 Future of Charity report. Backed by the Scottish Government and the Robertson Trust, The Lens has also been recently established to support third-sector organizations in increasing intrapreneurship and innovation.

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There are many similarities between public and non-profit organizations that, on the surface, make them unsuitable hosts for intrapreneurship. Both are popularly associated for their risk-averse cultures.

Change has often been viewed as a negative force; some of this is structural; for example, non-profits have trustees with liabilities, delegated authority to executives, and some remain dependent, if not accountable, to private donors.

Both are also facing challenges to their long-term sustainability – with declining satisfaction with performance by the general public, as well as having to increasingly contend with market-oriented interventions for tackling societal challenges.

A recent Independent Sector survey found that only 52% of Americans express trust in nonprofits — falling 4% from 2022 (see Fig 1). Compared with increasingly distrusted government institutions this isn’t terrible, but for a field primarily focused on improving society and helping the disadvantaged, it's remarkably low.

While corporations may have a greater internal budget and space for intrapreneurship, nonprofits and public organizations have an abundant knowledge of social issues, as well as connections with relevant stakeholders, making them ideally suited for driving meaningful change.

Just like in an SME context, the idea of needing to 'achieve more, with less' is relevant. Both domains should view themselves as organizations with a mission to serve the public and/or their beneficiaries. Intrapreneurship can be seen as a vehicle for both public and non-profits to deliver on their responsibilities of providing services and generating value for service users.

As we have already seen, the question about whose responsibility it is to tackle societal problems has seen intrapreneurship being increasingly applied to achieving socially positive outcomes - with 'systemic' intrapreneurship helping ensure 'change' is transformative, rather than performative.

Intrapreneurship beyond corporates

We are beginning to understand intrapreneurship more fully. Beyond the discussed trends, it’s likely intrapreneurship looks different from organization to organization, as well as between geographies and sectors. Evidently, there’s a remarkable diversity in where intrapreneurship can take place.

Perhaps intrapreneurship should be better understood as a mindset, one which extends past boundaries as defined by organizational type and size. One which can be applied to public and third-sector organizations also to further drive (social) change. Together these emerging trends help paint a picture of the changing face of intrapreneurship, where intrapreneurship is needed and indeed possible beyond large corporations.

Thanks to Yemi Adeola for being interviewed as part of this piece.

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