Tapping Corporate Innovation for a Thriving Intrapreneurship Ecosystem


Understanding the Intrapreneurial Ecosystem

September 30, 2020

Now more than ever, enterprises worldwide are being challenged to rethink their time-proven strategies and models, to set themselves on to new trajectories of growth and transformation. This reimagination of businesses, coupled with advances in technology in business, competition from unconventional quarters, and unforeseen upheavals, is driving disruption and corporate innovation at a pace and scale not seen before. Organizations are therefore looking at strategies that can help them adapt to imminent changes, build business resilience in the face of unanticipated threats, and grow and transform in the long run. This generally translates into a two-pronged approach of – i.) building an intrapreneurial ecosystem to tap the innovation potential of its workforce, and ii) developing deep collaborative relationships with innovation partners to complement the organization’s capabilities. Here, we share our understanding of the intrapreneurial ecosystem, and what it takes to establish one that is self-sustaining and thriving.

Layered nature of Intrapreneurial Ecosystems

An intrapreneur, like an entrepreneur, works on developing a new idea and nurturing it into a new business. However, unlike an entrepreneur, and intrapreneur is an employee of an organization, and has access to resources and capabilities provided by the organization.

Studies aimed at understanding healthy startup ecosystems have identified elements such as culture, policy, financial systems, business networks, technology in business human capital, infrastructure, markets and so on as components that together create an environment that maximizes the probability of entrepreneurial success. While many of these apply to intrapreneurship as well, Intrapreneurship has its own distinct characteristics and nuances. In organizations, policy and culture clearly operate at a different level of significance – with policy providing a foundation to the ecosystem, on top of which rests the cultural environment. The rest of the ecosystem functions within this culture. Addressing the culture and policy pieces is critical to achieve transformational impact.

The Environment - Culture

Intrapreneurs, like entrepreneurs, are motivated by the thrill of “challenging the status quo” and “redefining the future”. Organizations therefore, need to be able to establish a culture that allows individuals to challenge the as-is and reimagine the to-be. Another defining cultural characteristic is “daring to fail” -- providing reassurance to intrapreneurs that the organization not only “has their back”, but actively appreciates the risk they are undertaking. Other noteworthy traits include empowerment, agility and flexibility. While the endeavor is to expand such traits across the organization, in practice it may not always be practical. Each organization needs to decide the scope of cultural transformation that would work within its context and keeping in mind its vision. At the very least, work culture traits must be clearly perceptible in the micro-organization the intrapreneur functions within.

The Foundation – Policy

The culture that an organization aspires to, drives its policy, and policies eventually decide the culture that the organization ends up with. In the downstream, policies impact the effectiveness of other elements of the ecosystem. Hence it is critical to have clearly articulated policies that provide guiding principles to define structures and processes across the larger ecosystem. Unlike processes and procedures that define “how”, policies seek to define “what” e.g. what sources of investment would be allowed, what sort of behavior should be promoted, and so on. While policies may appear to be in the realm of individual functions such as Finance and HR., treating these as “organizational policies”, ensures big-picture alignment.

The Superstructure

This is the rest of the ecosystem, which can be visualized as three concentric circles, with the intrapreneur at its core. The innermost circle is the Intrapreneurship Cell or Incubator, which provides the common capabilities and facilities required by intrapreneurs such as technical and business mentoring, design capabilities, sandbox environments and similar elements. This could either be a physical or a virtual entity. Also, it could be a single centralized entity, or a network that runs across business units or geographies.

The second circle comprises elements that could be generically termed as “Organizational Subsystems”, and includes functions such as finance, HR, infrastructure, legal, business and R&D. As mentioned, these functions need to be aligned through organizational policies to ensure the effectiveness of the ecosystem.

The outermost circle consists of “external systems”, and includes entities such as customers, partners, government bodies, regulators and similar stakeholder groups that Intrapreneurs need to work with – either directly or through elements in the second layer.

A Pie-Slice View

Now, imagine a pie slice cut across the 3 circles, which can be slid inwards and outwards. While our earlier view had the elements grouped under clearly demarcated circles, the truth is that each element can be pushed inwards or outwards to varying extent, resulting in multiple configurations. While sliding inwards, an organization may push parts of HR or Finance processes to the Intrapreneurship Cell, sliding outwards, it could outsource parts to an external system. Further, this alignment of pie slices could well vary with time.

Governing the Ecosystem

The Intrapreneurial Ecosystem is dynamic and evolutionary, and the components are interconnected and interdependent. While this could lead to an ecosystem that is self-correcting, conversely, it could lead to degeneration over time. Hence the need to have an active, lightweight governance that can drive continual improvement leading to a thriving ecosystem.

Vidyut Navelkar is Principal Innovation Evangelist, and heads Incubation Governance & Operations at TCS.  In his career spanning over 30 years, he has played multiple roles in the Innovation, Learning & Development and Software Development areas, where he has been responsible for leading a variety of functions, programs, initiatives and projects. He has also been an active participant in various industry and academic forums.  A Senior Member of IEEE and Life Member of Computer Society of India, Vidyut holds an M.S. in Computer Science and an M.S. in Industrial & Management Systems Engineering, both from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.