intrapreneur (intrapreneurship)

What is an intrapreneur (intrapreneurship)?

The term intrapreneur is a portmanteau of "internal" and "entrepreneur," referring to employees within a company who apply entrepreneurial skills like creativity, initiative and risk-taking to their roles.

Intrapreneurship is a relatively recent concept reshaping the way organizations manage innovation and business development. Intrapreneurs are the catalysts of innovation within a corporation, often tasked with developing new ideas, products or services from within the existing organizational framework.

Intrapreneurship has gained attention in recent years for several reasons. In an era marked by rapid technological change and fierce competition, technical, product and business innovation has become a critical survival strategy for companies. Many organizations have realized that empowering their employees to act like entrepreneurs can drive internal innovation and foster a creative, dynamic corporate culture.

This is where intrapreneurship comes in. Intrapreneurs inject an entrepreneurial spirit into established companies, helping them stay competitive by driving internal innovation.

Intrapreneurship vs. entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship share many similarities. Both involve innovation, initiative and risk-taking. However, the key difference lies in the context in which these activities occur.

Entrepreneurs operate outside the confines of an existing organization. They typically shoulder all the risks associated with their venture, but they also reap all the rewards if their enterprise is successful. Entrepreneurs have complete autonomy and control over their projects from inception to execution.

In contrast, intrapreneurs operate within an established company. While they take on risks by pioneering new ideas, these risks are largely borne by the organization. Intrapreneurs have access to the company's resources and infrastructure, but they may have to navigate company policies and procedures.

They may not have the same level of control as entrepreneurs, and the financial rewards from successful projects typically flow to the company. However, intrapreneurs often benefit from recognition and career progression within the organization.

Key skills for an intrapreneur vs. entrepreneur

While intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs share many characteristics, such as creativity, initiative and risk-taking, there are some distinct differences in the skills they require.

Entrepreneurs need a high degree of independence and the ability to start from scratch. They need to be comfortable with a higher level of uncertainty and risk, as they typically shoulder full responsibility if a venture fails. Entrepreneurs also need a broad skillset to manage all aspects of a business, from marketing to finance to operations.

In contrast, intrapreneurs need to be skilled navigators of the corporate environment. They must influence and collaborate effectively within the organization, secure resources, and build alliances.

Entrepreneurs must balance their desire for innovation with the need to align with the company's strategic objectives. Intrapreneurs also need to be adept at managing risk within the constraints of the organization and its tolerance levels.

In essence, while entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs both drive innovation, the contexts in which they operate require somewhat different skillsets.

Good examples of intrapreneurship

There are numerous examples of successful intrapreneurship. Google's "20% time," which encouraged employees to spend 20% of their time on side projects, led to the creation of successful products like Google News and AdSense.

At 3M, a scientist's personal project to create a pressure-sensitive adhesive resulted in the Post-it Note, one of 3M's most iconic products. At Intel, a group of intrapreneurs developed the company's first microprocessor, effectively revolutionizing the computer industry.

These examples demonstrate the potential of intrapreneurship to drive significant innovation within established companies. As the business environment continues to evolve, the importance and prevalence of intrapreneurship are likely to grow.

Roles and responsibilities of an intrapreneur

The role of an intrapreneur can vary significantly depending on the company and industry, but some common duties and responsibilities include:

  • Idea generation. Intrapreneurs are often responsible for generating new ideas for products, services, or processes that can enhance the company's competitiveness or efficiency.
  • Innovation management. They oversee the entire innovation lifecycle, from concept to implementation, including the development, testing and eventual rollout of prototypes.
  • Project management. Intrapreneurs often lead cross-functional teams to manage their projects, coordinating resources, timelines and tasks to ensure successful execution.
  • Problem solving. They are tasked with identifying and solving complex business problems, often requiring innovative thinking and a willingness to challenge the status quo.
  • Risk assessment. Intrapreneurs must evaluate the potential risks and rewards of their initiatives, balancing the need for innovation with the practical constraints of the business.
  • Stakeholder engagement. They communicate and collaborate with various stakeholders, from team members to senior management, to gain support for their initiatives.
diagram illustrating primary steps of innovation in business.
Intrapreneurs infuse an entrepreneurial spirit to stay competitive by driving internal innovation.

The future of intrapreneurship

As more companies recognize the importance of intrapreneurship, it's likely that this role will be formalized more explicitly, resulting in the creation of defined intrapreneurial positions and established, dedicated innovation teams.

Additionally, while businesses grapple with increasingly complex challenges, intrapreneurs may be asked to tackle broader issues beyond product and service innovation. This could include societal or environmental concerns, playing a role in corporate social responsibility initiatives.

With the rise of digital transformation, intrapreneurs will likely lean more on technology to drive innovation as they will need to be adept at leveraging data, AI and other technologies to develop new solutions.

digital transformation trends
Digital transformation will lead intrapreneurs to lean more on technology to drive innovation.

Finally, as intrapreneurial projects and businesses become more complex, intrapreneurs will likely work more with teams across the organization, integrating insights from different fields to drive innovation.

In conclusion, the role of the intrapreneur is set to grow in importance and prominence in the future. Businesses that can successfully cultivate and harness intrapreneurship will likely be better equipped to navigate the challenges and opportunities of the evolving business landscape.

Learn about IT-business alignment and why it is important. Read about five big digital transformation trends and 14 need-to-know tips for digital transformation success. Explore the meaning of SkunkWorks project and how it can lead to innovation.

This was last updated in July 2023

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