A client, whose company had recently bought another, boasted to me that his organisation’s ‘innovation culture’ was helping him retain creative talent from the acquired company. He had feared that the best people would be lured away by the widespread enthusiasm for start-ups. His organisation’s focus on promoting the entrepreneurial spirit of his staff was clearly paying off in terms of building intellectual property and employee engagement. No doubt, these are achievements to be proud of. But, at the same time, he was worried. How long before the start-up wolf scratched at his door? And how long would he have to wait for a breakthrough innovation to sustain competitive advantage? The handful of large Indian enterprises that have been actively pursuing intrapreneurship and those toying with the idea of harnessing the pervasive spirit of entrepreneurship in their workforce may well need to ask these questions too. Doubtless, intrapreneurship—or promoting entrepreneurship within a corporate entity—is a good place to start on the road to building innovation capabilities. While the scenario of disruptive business models spawned by young talent and backed by venture capitalists may not be a strong threat, intrapreneurial companies are more likely to be faster than other companies in facing this challenge when it arises. Indeed, from the fabled “Skunkworks” to Google, the gains from promoting “intrapreneurship”, remain undisputed. Whether it is in terms of new products or services, new business models and reduced cost structures, or new models of engagement with stakeholders, intrapreneurship allows for exponential upside. Companies in India, from technology giants to automotive players, experimenting with intrapreneurship models are in all likelihood on the way to building these advantages. However, the time has come for intrapreneurial companies to push their boundaries to drive innovation. They need to not only look within but also outside the organisation, and reach out to talent within the industry, community and the nation. But to start with, intrapreneurial companies need to assess and ensure that risk taking behavior, ownership and accountability, and innovative thinking—important components of the entrepreneurial mindset—have become a part of the organisation’s DNA. A lot of the potential for great ideas could be lost if ideation is left to a separate group of bright people who are allowed to take time out to think innovation. Such a model assumes that innovative thinking cannot be part of one’s daily work routine.
A BPO company with thousands of highly qualified employees in its call centers, for example, stands a huge chance of designing new processes that can save costs if its entire workforce, and not just a handful of bright people, is trained and encouraged to think of ideas. A pervasive entrepreneurial environment will also involve the willingness to celebrate failures. Breakthrough innovation is more possible in such an environment. If managements do not recognize efforts, even the failed ones, the next lot of intrapreneurs will be cautious and will tend to deliver incremental returns rather than exponential game-changing innovation. In these competitive times with disruptive technologies, only breakthrough innovation can provide sustainable competitive advantage. The point here is that large enterprises can bring their massive resources to bear on creating, nurturing and launching new concepts. They can match the agility of start-ups. In fact, they can go a step ahead—large enterprises can build platforms with entrepreneurs, and/or act as incubators or accelerators. Such enterprises have the resources for scaling up. Creating a collaborative network with entrepreneurs with scalable ideas could magnify the potential for companies to encourage new ideas within and outside the organisation. Only successful intrapreneurial organisations will find it easy to engage with external entrepreneurship networks. Such collaborative efforts could be used to solve not only business but also social challenges on a large scale. Social responsibility and entrepreneurship will then become an intrinsic part of the organisation and not just the job of the people in innovation units and corporate social responsibility departments. Imagine then the impact on employee retention and the transformational impact on society that such organisations can create in their pursuit of innovation. Avinash Vashistha is the chairman & managing director at Accenture India