By David Grayson and Sonia Ruiz

We are certain that any business that has been started by, or is being run by an Esade alumnus or indeed, any other innovative manager, will be passionate about increasing innovation. We imagine they will also be enthusiastic about giving employees every opportunity to demonstrate what they can do when given a chance.

Growing numbers will also be increasingly serious about embedding sustainability. We talked about how businesses can go "All In" for sustainability in an earlier article: Building back better: the All In leadership framework (26 May 2020).

Now, we want to focus on how by encouraging the social intrapreneurs within their organisations, business leaders can drive more innovation, more leadership capacity-building, and more sustainability.

As more companies are adopting a more proactive role as social agents, they will be more likely to develop social impact and sustainable business models, with a clear goal of solving pressing social and environmental problems. And to make this possible, they need the ideas, passion, and drive of their intrapreneurs.

Social intrapreneurs are innovators inside companies (Photo: Katya Guseva)

Social intrapreneurs are "innovators inside companies who are imagining new products, services, business models and practices that generate business value and positive social or environmental impact." In fact, they are not just "imagining", they usually go further and take the initiative to put their ideas into practice.

Sometimes, they may begin by "moonlighting" for their own employer: initially developing their ideas "under the corporate radar" and in their own time. Global brands like Vodafone's M-Pesa (mobile money services) and the Accenture Development Partnerships or ADP (a ground-breaking consultancy within Accenture serving the international development market) started as projects championed by social intrapreneurs.

Social intrapreneurs usually go further and take the initiative to put their ideas into practice

One of the early attempts to raise the profile of social intrapreneurism was a global competition for would-be social intrapreneurs back in 2012-13. This competition generated hundreds of entries and led to the creation of the League of Intrapreneurs, which is now a "global learning community of intrapreneurs and catalysts working to unlock the human innovation potential inside our most influential institutions."

The league has just published a book entitled The intrapreneur's guide to pathfinding to help intrapreneurs identify their bigger purpose, create more impact, find fellow co-travellers, and most importantly survive (and thrive!) on the #changefromwithin journey.

Businesses can wait – and hope that somehow, individual employees might organically take their own initiative as did Nick Hughes (founder of M-Pesa) and Gib Bulloch (founder of ADP).

We think that this approach is too slow and while it may lead to incremental changes and efficiency improvements within the existing business model, those initiatives are often not disruptive enough. Disruptive change occurs when business models are questioned and challenged, re-thought, and re-defined. Disruption needs a wider approach and a solid commitment from top management.

Disruption management
Disruption needs a wider approach and a solid commitment from top management (Photo: Aldona Pivoriene)

This is why, we instead recommend that businesses develop an "ecosystem" that supports social intrapreneurs. The good news is that compared with even a few short years ago, there are numerous practical examples from mainstream companies showing what can be done.

Business leaders can be explicit about having a societal purpose and a commitment to sustainability, by stating their priorities, and where they especially need extra help and focus. Some companies have created innovation funds in which employees can bid for a share, often through competitive pitches to senior leaders – with the prospect of resources and senior leadership mentoring and support.

We recommend that businesses develop an ecosystem that supports social intrapreneurs

Some companies now run intrapreneurship "labs" – bootcamps and accelerator training programmes. Companies such as Barclays and Pearson, for example, have dedicated social innovation incubators. They invest in mentoring and network development, and offer funding. Barclays and Pearson along with BMW, Disney, GSK, Mars, BlackRock, and others, have also worked with TIL Ventures to run intrapraneurship programmes.

As Maggie de Pree of the League of Intrapreneurs and Hester le Roux of Business Fights Poverty note: "To succeed, however, they have found that they need to actively involve business-unit leads in the governance and prototyping of projects to build bridges for integrating back into the business."

Intrapreneur in a company
Some businesses sponsor intrapreneurial employees on external programmes (Photo: Adie Dinson)

The League of Intrapreneurs and Business Fights Poverty have a very good toolkit for understanding the intrapreneurship ecosystem – the complex set of processes, practices, resources, and relationships which collectively serves to facilitate or inhibit intrapreneurship and social innovation: "The Intrapreneurship Ecosystem".

Some businesses sponsor intrapreneurial employees on external programmes such as the Aspen Institute's Business and Society First Movers programme – which is now on its 11th annual cohort.

Many programmes for intrapreneurs have included a focus on societal impact criteria in the call for projects: Intra4Good initiated by BNP Paribas is a community that connects intrapreneurs who pursue a project with a social impact. BNP Paribas, Danone, and Engie have also partnered to launch a joint intrapreneurship programme #Intrapreneurs4Good.

Many programmes for intrapreneurs have included a focus on societal impact criteria in the call for projects

Nicolas Bry, Orange Startups Studio founder and the author of The intrapreneurs' factory argues that: "because many intrapreneurs have no experience in innovation project management, or venture creation, tailored coaching is of the utmost importance on the following dimensions: keeping intrapreneur mood elated, ensuring team cohesion, explaining the innovation path (lean startup) and maintaining the creative tension, and helping the intrapreneur to connect to allies, and attract resources."

Many of the early first movers are now themselves in senior leadership positions, able to champion the added-value that nurturing social intrapreneurs can provide for business and for society. Other companies are starting to highlight the potential of intrapreneurism to their current leaders. BNP Paribas now includes discussion of how to build an ecosystem for social intrapreneurs as part of its leadership development on sustainability and impact for its top managers.

We hope to soon see many more organisations fully integrate initiatives to encourage intrapreneurism, with overall corporate purpose and strategies for innovation and new business development, as well as with talent and leadership development programmes. By joining up their thinking and practice, companies will have more resilient leaders and a wider and more disruptive approach to innovation and new business development.

About the authors

David Grayson CBE is emeritus professor of Corporate Responsibility at Cranfield School of Management, UK, and co-author of Social intrapreneurism and all that Jazz (Greenleaf Publishing 2014).

Sonia Ruiz is a professor and senior researcher at the Esade Institute for Social Innovation. She is also the founder of NOIMA, Meaningful Strategies, a sustainability and social innovation boutique consulting firm based in Barcelona and working with changemakers around the world.

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