Just imagine if we could train employees to become ‘intrapreneurs’, that is to say, people who start up businesses within the company they are working for? Yuri Jain at Unilever is an example of an intrapreneur. He has come up with a new water purification system that has generated massive sales in India. Colin Harrison at IBM is another intrapreneur. He has created new applications that help to make cities healthier. In times like the present, we need to develop new business models, and this will only happen if we can promote the emergence of intrapreneurs within our companies. As Scott D. Anthony suggests in an article published in the Harvard Business Review, in the current environment the great opportunities for innovation will come from a change in existing business models, rather than from solitary inventors like Edison, or Du Pont-style corporate laboratory research, or even start-ups. It’s no surprise that from 1997 to 2007, more than half of the companies who made it onto the Fortune 500 list in the first 25 years of their existence, did so thanks to innovations in their business model. Likewise, it comes as no surprise that Nokia entrusts its future development to programmes that foster cooperation and learning. However, no true innovation will take place if we do not have people who can rise to the challenge of becoming intrapreneurs, and organisations that allow this to occur.
The fact is that intrapreneurs are a rare breed, as we discovered in a study that we carried out in 30 different-sized Spanish companies, operating in diverse sectors. Intrapreneurs are very results-oriented people who are extremely good at getting others on their side. What’s more, they identify fully with the company, and are highly motivated. However, they require the right working conditions in order to ‘breathe’. In particular, they need leaders who believe in them, don’t need to be in control all the time and are prepared to accept failure as part of the process of trying new approaches. In addition, these leaders must back intrapreneurship both financially and from a deep-seated conviction.
Companies are always talking about the need for innovation and finding the next big idea. However, perhaps they should really be identifying the potential intrapreneurs that they already have, and giving them the means to set up new projects. Possibly, the real opportunity that the current economic crisis is offering us is to reflect on whether our companies are permeable enough to encourage intrapreneurship, and to make companies more open to new ideas and to developing leaders who have an innovation-oriented mindset built into in their DNA. As Gandhi said, ‘As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world as in being able to remake ourselves.’ It is quite possible that this maxim is equally applicable to the business world.
First published in Spanish in Expansión, 19 January 2013