TWO of the biggest challenges companies face in these turbulent and competitive economic times are staying innovative and retaining top talent. Rapid advances in technology allow start-ups to regularly disrupt existing business models and the lure of entrepreneurship leads to an exodus of dynamic employees who want to carve out a business of their own.

Both these issues can be tackled effectively with intrapreneurship.

Coined in 1978 by businessman and inventor Gifford Pinchot III, the term gained widespread exposure in 1985 when Pinchot published his book, Intrapreneuring: Why You Don’t Have To Leave The Corporation To Become An Entrepreneur.

Intrapreneurship can mean two things. One refers to the concept of encouraging employees to start up new companies under the umbrella of the parent company. Another refers to giving employees the autonomy to tackle problems in their own way.

Let’s look at the first interpretation which is about fostering entrepreneurship within a company. The term “intra” means starting up a new venture within an existing company.

I first came across this concept many years ago when I met up with an old schoolmate who had successfully climbed up the corporate ladder. He was a senior manager at a big company in Singapore. When I met him, he’d just started working on a new venture which was fully funded by his employer.

The company had given him an offer he couldn’t refuse. If the new start-up was successful, he would get a small stake in the business. And if it failed, he could go back to his old job in the parent company.

“I get to try to build something new and potentially reap the rewards of that but without having to take a big risk,” he said.

By offering top employees the opportunity to build new subsidiaries, companies which practise intrapreneurship can stem the outflow of talented workers who might otherwise pursue entrepreneurship.

While it’s true that workers who take up intrapreneurship opportunities still remain employees of the company, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially if they’re given autonomy in how they run their start-ups. And it comes with the benefit of adequate funding, a regular salary and — crucially — a potential stake in the business. If you consider the high failure rate of start-ups, this option doesn’t sound too bad.

Intrapreneurship doesn’t have to be just about starting new businesses for the parent company. It can also be about sparking innovation and creatively resolving problems that impede productivity.

FREEDOM TO EXPERIMENT

Big corporations tend to be lumbering giants. Usually the bigger the company, the less nimble and agile it is. This is a problem if disruptive forces are creating havoc with the existing business model.

Such companies need a unit or units to come up with bold, creative and unconventional solutions. It must identify the most entrepreneurially-minded employees and give them the freedom to do this for the company. These employees must be allowed to experiment — to grow and to fail like entrepreneurs — with minimal intervention from the parent company. Unless these intrapreneurs are given sufficient autonomy and independence to try new things that the parent company would never do, the endeavour will fail.

Intrapreneurs in this context are similar to entrepreneurs except that instead of being given the opportunity to build new businesses or subsidiaries, they’re expected to find new ways of doing things so that the company can be more innovative, productive and efficient. They are problem solvers who have to come up with solutions for market-driven challenges.

While a start-up-oriented intrapreneur is expected to oversee the creation of a completely new business, as entrepreneurs are expected to do, the problem-solving intrapreneur focuses on improving and enhancing existing processes within the company. The former creates new products and services the company can sell while the latter increases the productivity and capacity of the company’s existing business.

This doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. A company can have both types of intrapreneurship. Employees who yearn to build something new can be given start-up intrapreneurship opportunities while those who like to think out of the box and try new ways of doing things can be given problem-solving intrapreneurship duties.

WIN-WIN FOR ALL

The benefit for companies is obvious — they can remain innovative and retain talented staff. But an intrapreneurship programme also benefits employees.

Even the most entrepreneurially-minded individual must be aware of the risks of leaving a job with a steady income. As for employees who like to think out of the box, being given a chance to experiment with existing work processes will prevent them from getting bored. More fulfilment and satisfaction means a higher retention rate of quality employees.

The big question for companies is how to foster a culture of intrapreneurship among employees. If the company is teeming with employees who can’t wait to try new things, getting intrapreneurship going is not a problem. But we all know of companies where the employees are content with a 9-to-5 routine and don’t necessarily want to do something new. They’re happy to stay within their comfort zone.

Fostering an entrepreneurial culture has to start from the top. A company where the top management has a reputation for being progressive and open-minded will attract employees who are similarly inclined. And they in turn, will recommend the company to friends who’ll appreciate working in such an environment.

It also helps if the company has training programmes for employees to upgrade their skill sets to prepare them for intrapreneurship opportunities. It sends a strong signal that this is a company you can grow with. There should also be a formal process for employees to apply for intrapreneurship opportunities — whether it’s for starting something new or tackling an existing problem. They need to know there’s a mechanism where their ideas can be seriously considered by their bosses.

Lastly, there must be a proper reward system in place. Intrapreneurs who successfully build new subsidiaries must be given stock options or a revenue-share deal. As for those who help solve problems and improve productivity, there must be a bonus and/or promotion programme in place.

Intrapreneurship isn’t a common practice in Malaysia but local business owners should seriously consider it. We all know of good people who’ve left their companies because they wanted to start something new or because they were frustrated with the old ways of doing things. Such proactive, dynamic and talented individuals might have stayed on if an intrapreneurship programme had been put in place.

Oon Yeoh is a consultant with experiences in print, online and mobile media.

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