Oliver Balch tackles key topics in academic thinking and research on sustainability

“Going back to the garage but in a large company.” So Steve Jobs said of a group of his innovator colleagues in his fledging Macintosh company. That was 1985. The term “intrapreneur” had been coined some years earlier (by American inventor and entrepreneur Gifford Pinchot), but the concept is only now beginning to be met with rigorous attention in the business literature.

Intrapreneurs have enjoyed various descriptors. Pinchot called them “dreamers that do”. Employees characterised by “assertive risk-taking and innovation” runs one dictionary definition. Perhaps the easiest way to conceive what is an “intrapreneur” is to consider all the attributes you associate with an entrepreneur (think: self-starting, creative, dynamic, experimental) – and then just transpose them into a corporate organisation, rather than outside of one. For illustration (and inspiration), browse the web pages of the League of Intrapreneurs.

For intrapreneurs to thrive, they require an institutional culture that recognises and supports their way of working. Pinchot identified early on the “corporate immune system” that stifles attempts to do things differently. Failure is standard practice for innovators, for instance, yet rare is the firm that views this as a positive. As David Grayson, co-author of Social Intrapreneurism and All that Jazz puts it: “Social intrapreneurs are typically going against the grain, challenging their organisation and questioning the status quo to develop and implement commercially attractive sustainability solutions.”

Interestingly, social intrapreneurs don’t necessarily flourish better in more responsible companies. Meeting an organisation’s aims and progressing up a company’s ranks is not what drives social intrapreneurs. What does is an outwardly focused sense of social benevolence, or “self-transcendence values”, to give it its academic label. So while a firm with a positive CSR agenda might be more predisposed to facilitate intrapreneurial activity, promising promotions or self-advancement won’t help release it. For the same reason, expect social intrapreneurship to pop up anywhere across a business. Being smart, innovative and socially minded isn’t the preserve of managers. Indeed, the maverick spirit of intrapreneurs leans against such a prospect.

Steve Jobs (Credit: Reinkadesign/Shutterstock Inc.)

Unlike social entrepreneurs, social intrapreneurs are not free agents. They remain tied to a corporate entity, with all the fiduciary duties to shareholders that this implies. Their pursuit of social objectives cannot therefore be detached from their employer’s objective of generating financial returns. This places an inevitable constraint on intrapreneurs and tends to mean that their efforts to promote social innovation occur on an ad hoc basis, aside from their primary job function. Tensions also emerge from a corporate management perspective. Social intrapreneurs are strongly motivated by ethical values, yet ethics are ultimately subjective. It is theoretically possible that a social intrapreneur’s value set could be read by some to be unethical. A more likely scenario is that the socially minded innovator focuses on what he or she cares about, rather than what a company’s social strategy prompts them to care about.

One feature that entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs very much have in common is a high appetite for risk. Taking the first step is perhaps the biggest risk of all. Change-makers aren’t blind to risk, however. As Harvard business professor Len Schlesinger notes, entrepreneurs will often start by asking themselves what they can afford to lose (in the short-term), rather than what they might gain (in the future). For the founder of a start-up, considerations such as money, time and opportunity top the list. For a salaried intrapreneur, these represent less of a concern. For them, what constitutes an “affordable loss” or not is more likely to relate to their social standing and relationship capital within the company. Their peers and immediate boss thus become vital gatekeepers in persuading (or dissuading) intrapreneurs to take that all-important first step. 

Success then rests on keeping fellow employees on board. A recent INSEAD working paper about an intrapreneurial initiative in a consulting firm shows how this can be achieved through the combination of a sound business case and enthusiasm about the project’s social impacts. The metaphor of jazz is a useful one here. Jazz musicians are not “solo acts”, as Grayson et al note. Likewise, a successful intrapreneurial project requires innovators to create an “ensemble” of like-minded individuals with complementary skills and ideas. The larger the group, the more important the need to provide an orchestral “score” – yet not without eliminating free improvisation, which lies at the heart of all jazz (and all entrepreneurialism too).

Credit: By/Shutterstock Inc.

In the academy, the front-running on this agenda is being led by educators. The Aspen Institute, for instance, has a First Movers Fellowship Programme. TechChange and Ashoka Changemakers, meanwhile, now run a four-week certified online course on intrapreneurship.

Hard research into corporate social intrepreneurship remains in its infancy, however, particularly with respect to empirical analysis of its effects on social and/or business outcomes. While the characteristics of the social intrapreneur are increasingly well documented, less is known about the contributing factors that feed into such characteristics. What are the impacts of family background, personal values and their employer’s own ethical stance, for instance? Likewise, a comparative investigation to identify what drives some innovators to become independent entrepreneurs and others to go in-house would prove intriguing. For companies, such insights would assist greatly in identifying how best to attract pro-social change-makers at the recruitment stage, as well as how best to maximise the creative energy of those already in their workforce.

Suggested Reading

Gifford Pinchot. 1984. Intrapreneuring: Why You Don't Have to Leave the Corporation to Become an Entrepreneur. New York: Harper & Row
Gerald David & Christopher White. 2015. Changing Your Company from the Inside Out: A Guide for Social Intrapreneurs. Harvard Business Review Press.

David Grayson, Melody McLaren & Heiko Spitzeck. 2014. Social Intrapreneurism and All That Jazz: How Business Innovators are Helping to Build a More Sustainable World. Routledge.

The League of Intrapreneurs: The Intrapreneurs’ Toolkit. Available free online.



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