Intrapreneurs are a new breed of workers positioned to make transformational change within an existing operation. As corporate employees, they hold the freedom of entrepreneurship without risking their personal savings and credit, or someone else’s investment.
In either written or unwritten policies, companies are fostering the freedom for employees to work on projects with the end goal of radical innovation. Some of the world’s most successful companies implement this culture of innovation, and it’s becoming more widespread.
A Brief History of Intrapreneurship
Modern intrapreneurship began in 1974 when Art Fry, an engineer at 3M, noticed a problem – his bookmark kept falling out of his hymnal during choir practice. At that time, 3M offered an intrapreneurial policy that allowed employees to spend 15 percent of their time working on their own project ideas. Under that policy, another 3M engineer named Spencer Silver had already invented a light, repositionable adhesive. Although Spencer promoted his adhesive within the company, it failed to gain traction until Fry needed a bookmark. Together, Spencer and Fry created the Post-It Note.
Although 3M was experimenting successfully with intrapreneurship in the 1960s and ‘70s, the term wasn’t coined until 1978. After, it jostled around in academic journals until 1985 when Time magazine published an article called “Here Come the Intrapreneurs.” Steve Jobs used the term in an interview with Newsweek in 1986, and in 2011, London hosted the first intrapreneurship conference. By 2016, 28 percent of multinational corporations declared they maintained an intrapreneurship program. Today, companies with intrapreneurship include Google, W.L. Gore, 3M and Texas Instruments.
Intrapreneurship vs. Entrepreneurship
Although intrapreneurship and entrepreneurship spring from similar mindsets, they are not the same thing.
A 2016 article from Larry Myler, “Our research on this topic has revealed four material intra/entre-preneur disconnects that, if not acknowledged, can hinder innovation, and actually leave an organization worse off than if the jump to intrapreneurship had never been attempted in the first place.”
- Risk vs. Reward – Entrepreneurship is a high-risk, high-reward situation. Intrapreneurs, however, have the relative safety of a reliable paycheck and their actions can be considered low-risk.
- Culture – Entrepreneurs build their own corporate culture, but intrapreneurs must navigate within an established one.
- Autonomy – Because entrepreneurs go into business for themselves, they tend to have more control over business decisions than intrapreneurs who operate within a more structured system of corporate checks and balances.
- Resource Attainment – Some organizations provide manpower, funds and time for intrapreneurial activities, which can give intrapreneurs an advantage over entrepreneurs.
Many intrapreneurs work in industries where traditional entrepreneurship is too expensive or where competition is too large. One of many great intrapreneurship examples is DreamWorks Animation. The media behemoth that gave us “Madagascar” and “Kung Fu Panda” offers classes in script writing to its animators so they can develop and pitch their own scripts within the company.
Successful companies institute intrapreneurial opportunities to ensure they continue to be successful. Research from DeLoitte states that 88 percent of the companies on the Fortune 500 list in 1955 did not exist by 2015. Most went bankrupt, a few were acquired, some merged.
What made the difference between the companies that vanished and those that survived? According to DeLoitte, the two key differentiators for the longest-lived companies were improving their current products and harnessing the power of their employees’ innovation. Intrapreneurs can work within current structures, but in order to succeed they must learn how to break the right rules and bring the mentality of a scrappy start-up to a giant company.
Mature organizations struggle to innovate successfully, but without innovation, they can become obsolete. Their options for a survival strategy are to bring new and inventive creations in from the outside or to grow them in-house through intrapreneurship.
Characteristics of Intrapreneurs
Intrapreneurs are not people who come to work every day hoping to blend in, punch the clock and go home without being noticed. Just like entrepreneurs, these professionals are driven to make changes. They are risktakers, innovators and problem-solvers. Most of all, intrapreneurs are bottom-line people.
An intrapreneurship example from the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, for instance, improved efficiency and decreased expenses. A guard suggested moving inmate pictures from paper files to digital ones, which saved $56,000 the first year.
Guy Kawasaki, who was one of the Apple employees who marketed Macintosh computer line, wrote “Intrapreneurship has its own advantages and disadvantages. It takes an extra dose of courage because if you are successful, you will often cannibalize the current cash cows of your company. However, if you are not successful, your company could die when your cows wither and die.”
Become an Intrapreneur
Intrapreneurs don’t bring new ideas to the table every day; they have the same business background as their corporate counterparts. In fact, intrapreneurs need sharper skills and newer knowledge than other employees. After all, they aren’t just leading a company. They’re leading change.
At Virginia Wesleyan University, our online MBA program focuses on hands-on practice and lively discussion of business principles, and emphasizes flexibility so that you can fit your education into your already busy life. VWU graduates are prepared to face the challenges of business with rigorous analytical skills and creative problem-solving techniques.