Intrapreneurship: yet another buzzword or a business’s secret weapon?

Companies that enable all staff to hone their entrepreneurial skills – and then apply these to solving key business problems – could gain a crucial edge in the innovation stakes 


While it may sound like just another glib management buzzword, ‘intrapreneurship’ has become a highly prized quality in business. Before the pandemic struck the UK, recruitment firm Michael Page ranked intrapreneurship at number one on its list of the 100 most sought-after skills in job candidates. When it polled 500 business leaders at the end of 2020, well over two-thirds (69%) said that this attribute had become even more important to their firms during the Covid crisis. 

Despite this, there are signs that investment in intrapreneurship will be another casualty of the pandemic. A survey by the European Investment Bank in January 2021 found that 45% of companies in the EU were expecting to cut their annual expenditure in this area. 

But not all businesses have forgotten McKinsey’s research into the recession of 2008-09, which found that firms that kept investing in innovation during the financial crisis comfortably outgrew those that cut their budgets. Indeed, a growing number have grasped the importance of enabling their teams to think and act like entrepreneurs if they are to thrive beyond the Covid slump. 

Studio Zao is an intrapreneurship consultancy that’s been helping clients including Sony Music, Target and Vodafone to do just that. Its founder is Jamie Qiu, who set up and ran EY’s first start-up accelerator in 2014. He and his team teach entrepreneurial skills such as creative problem-solving; identifying and managing risk; and dealing with ambiguity and volatility. 

They also offer training in the so-called minimum-viable-product method – a significant departure from traditional approaches to product development that is not for the faint-hearted. This is where a company puts a partially developed offering on the market, often with only a few features ready to use, and asks early-adopting customers for feedback to inform the refinement process, instead of spending months perfecting it internally before releasing it fully formed.

Developing internal entrepreneurs

“One of the key things that businesses need to consider is how they develop entrepreneurial talent inside the organisation. This can enable a real transformation,” says Qiu, who believes that intrapreneurial skills “are in great demand, as organisations have realised that the pace at which they must identify, test and validate new commercial opportunities is increasing”. 

He adds that, even before the Covid crisis, he’d observed an upsurge of interest among businesses in developing their employees’ skills in this area. “But now, more than ever, there’s a need to take advantage of the white-space opportunities coming out of the pandemic in a way that will improve your organisation’s resilience against other crises that are undoubtedly going to happen.”

Qiu says that entrepreneurial skills can add value in any role at any level of an organisation, but he stresses that they are most effective when applied to a specific challenge. 

That was the situation for Sony Music in 2014, when Teresa Kotlicka, then its vice-president of people and organisational development, implemented an intrapreneurship programme. The aim was to boost the company’s capacity for innovation in the face of increasing competition from the streaming industry by asking people throughout the organisation to suggest ideas for new income-generating activities. 

The group has since successfully diversified through partnerships and acquisitions, including those of music distributor The Orchard and production marketplace BeatStars. It has signed fitness and gaming deals with Peloton and Fortnite, as well as making sizable back-catalogue rights purchases, including what’s thought to be a nine-figure deal with Paul Simon. 

One of the key things that businesses need to consider is how they develop entrepreneurial talent inside the organisation

“We were trying to help the company figure out how to operate under a new business model,” recalls Kotlicka, who is now interim director of talent at Kellogg’s. “Digital streaming platforms had really disrupted how it was making money and what its value chain looked like. So we tapped into the potential of our employees to help solve our meaningful challenges profitably.”

On top of the commercial returns it has achieved on its intrapreneurial investments over time, the company has also benefited in a less tangible way that’s no less important to Kotlicka.

“Our retention and promotion stats looked better after people went on the programme, but what meant more to me was that the conversation changed: business ideas were being presented using new concepts that would have felt taboo before,” she explains. “It was really important to have a diverse range of voices and backgrounds in the room when we were trying to solve some of these meaningful challenges.”

Getting closer to customers

US packaging manufacturer AptarGroup turned to intrapreneurship to involve both its wider workforce and its customers in an effort to improve production efficiency and develop more sustainable offerings. 

This process required the company to break down silos and share more information than it had been accustomed to, according to the firm’s vice-president of digitalisation, Fabio Di Memmo.

“We had to go back to this fundamental question of what the customers really need,” he recalls. “We had to get closer to them to discover new opportunities, while also minimising risk.”

The risk-taking spirit that’s intrinsic to entrepreneurial innovation is something that many businesses tend to lose with age. This has led Kotlicka to observe that, while the appetite for intrapreneurship is increasing among firms, they may lack the stomach for it in practice.

“Everyone wants to talk about innovation, but who will actually be making it happen?” she says. “A lot of bravery needs to go into this.”