Inspired by recent entrepreneurial articles from the hugely impressive SMF community, I thought I’d chip in with a story of my own. I consider the courageousness of the classic entrepreneurs in some awe… but as a man of less iron resolve, I prefer my entrepreneurship from the vantage point of a large corporate, in my case IBM.
So my story is one of “Intrapreneurship”… applying entrepreneurial skills to pursue new opportunities for your company and in doing so, create new exciting career opportunities for yourself. If your career ambition is driven by a desire for personal impact on society at large, then leveraging corporate scale might be as effective as going it alone.
In summer 2011, I joined IBM in the midst of it centenary year, celebrating its role in technology leadership from the personal computer to the moon landing. And as I looked at the vast portfolio of solutions, I bought into the IBM Smarter Planet vision, aligning good business by tackling global and societal problems.
However, there seemed a gap in the solution set. It appeared that our planets greatest challenge of our time – the challenge of global inequality – was not being directly addressed by an IBM business unit or solution set. And this is hardly surprising. Despite the popular support for Prahalad’s Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, few companies have found business models that effectively serve this market at scale.
So coming into IBM fresh from my Sainsbury Management Fellows-sponsored MBA, and full of the naïve optimism of a newbie, I set about finding the business models that might harness the collective power of such a great institution – 430,000 employees, and $6bn a year in R&D – to address this challenge: and not by way of philanthropy or traditional CSR; but with the conviction with which business pursues attractive growth opportunities.
And so outside my day job as a strategy consultant, I launched IBM Smarter Impact. Through a certain amount of belligerence and networking, the concept has evolved over the past year and a half into a global initiative with global resources. So I’d like to use this blog to air some thoughts on intrapreneurship before concluding with a brief word on where the Smarter Impact journey has led…
Encouraging intrapreneurship in large organisations…
Large corporations typically require a disciplined structure of business unit, product and industry alignment, a discipline that enables predictable business performance on a quarterly basis. My view is that there is a temptation to leave innovation to the R&D department, however successful a company might be at churning out patents.
However, many game-changing business innovations originate from employees who spot a business opportunity that cuts across traditional organisational silos. For a systematic solution, companies must encourage the behaviours that are required to drive these ideas in their early gestation. This requires the right recruitment, incentive and promotion policies, so that the middle and senior leadership are populated with leaders who at least recognise, if not exhibit, true entrepreneurial behaviours. The organisation must then have the platforms to accept or reject the new ideas once they have reached a period of maturity.
- Recruit the right blend of employee, and look out for those with an entrepreneurial spark
- Ensure there is an entrepreneurial element within formal training programs
- Use the formal mentoring structure to encourage pursuit of ideas in their early stages
- Allow employees some leeway to work on their pet projects on the side of the day jobs, and recognise these activities in their remuneration review
- Find a platform for sponsorship of new business opportunities.
- But not too early in the life of the idea, perhaps once a first sale has been achieved or the model proven as commercially viable This ensures that the employee has the tenacity to stick with their idea, and the conviction to see it through
What makes a good intrapreneur?
Like the entrepreneur, the intrepreneur has the benefit of being able to create and lead new ventures at any stage of their career and not just once a senior position has been attained. Also like the entrepreneur, they work with limited resources – even including their own time. Therefore similar skills are required to improvise, acquire resources and build momentum.
But there are additional skills required by the intrapreneur. At a recent meeting with a large UK city council, it was proposed that there are three types of city leaders: Political leaders, Thought-leaders and Managerial leaders. The rational was that an effective city leader will be one of the three. Which got me thinking about intrapreneurs… It seems to me that the most effective intrapreneurs need to be pretty good at all three. In the context of driving change and innovation in a large company, this means:
Political leadership – managing up, don’t always ask for permission, ask for advice to unlock resources and help. Identify some senior sponsors, and in doing so, choose the most appropriate ‘home’ within the organisation. For example, the momentum behind Smarter Impact has benefited greatly from positioning as a surrogate of IBM’s Smarter Cities business.
Thought-leadership – taking ownership of the idea, find other global thought-leaders through blogs and networks, participate in the debate and help move the conversation on.
Managerial leadership – an ability to manage sideways and downwards to galvanise support and herd existing disparate efforts/initiatives into a critical mass of success stories. An ability to secure additional resources on limited budgets: for example, leveraging university relations as a source of bandwidth and innovation*.
Take my IBM colleague Rick Robinson, a global thought-leader on smarter cities. Rick may be famous for his thought and technical leadership around data solutions for cities, but he also displays the other traits of a highly effective intrapreneur.
(*As a side note, Universities are always looking for interesting commercial, explorative projects, but having witnessed from both sides, too often these are badly conceived, poorly supported and then stray off the desired outcome. The academic teams need leading and motivating and then the output can be fantastic. For example check out this video delivered by LSE for Smarter Impact and the city of Rio de Janeiro after just 3 weeks of work.)
So where is Smarter Impact today?
Smarter Impact was publicly launched at a London conference in September 2012, an event I actually missed as it coincided with the birth of my first child!
This event engaged participants from across private, public and third sector, and really moved on the discussion. Smarter Impact has now crystallized into a mechanism for new partnerships between private, public and third sector to drive inclusive economic development. It has evolved a suite of data-driven solutions, which capitalise on exciting new sources of data and connectivity, such as the proliferation of mobile data and crowd sourcing. While originally pitched at the international development sector, the principles are now being applied to drive social inclusion agendas in our UK city partnerships. Crucially for its future in IBM, Smarter Impact is now bringing in revenue and opening up new lines of dialogue between global leaders from the World Economic Forum to Sunderland City Council.
Phil is Business Development Executive for IBM’s Smarter Cities business in SE Asia, and global leader of IBM Smarter Impact. For more information contact Phil (firstname.lastname@example.org).