UK: INTRAPRENEURS GO OFFICIAL. - Personal enterprise is alive and well: it just needs harnessing.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Personal enterprise is alive and well: it just needs harnessing.

Whatever happened to 'intrapreneuring'? A little over 10 years ago, when the book of that name first appeared, it excited immediate interest across the industrialised western world. Gifford Pinchott's account of how the moribund modern corporation might be brought to life by an injection of entrepreneurial spirit from a few thrusting employees - using 'bootlegged' resources and 'stolen' company time and working for themselves - was hailed as a revelation. Pinchott himself sought to elevate it into a system by proposing the creation of special 'intracapital' funds and in-company sponsors to promote intrapreneurial efforts.

However, intrapreneuring soon died the death. Perhaps it will shortly be revived by a new edition of the book from HarperCollins. But professors Sumantra Ghoshal, of London Business School, and Christopher Bartlett, of Harvard, don't think so. In an article headed 'Building the Entrepreneurial Corporation' in this year's Financial Times Handbook of Management, the two authors dismiss 'the myths of internal venturing and intrapreneurship that have already been debunked in practice'. The multidivisional corporation - a model that dominated big business for nearly 70 years - is obsolete, they argue, along with its stifling organisational constraints and controls. And the emerging replacement, characterised by teamworking and empowerment, is learning to apply innovation in an orderly way. It has no place on the payroll for mavericks and loose cannons.

Even so, Ghoshal and Bartlett's prescription for the new enterprising company, with its 'front-line entrepreneurs' supported by 'senior level coaches', does bear a resemblence to the Pinchott formula. Both parties quote some of the same examples. Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing's Art Fry, who is credited with developing 'Post-It Notes' on his own initiative, was one of Pinchott's intrapreneur heroes. These days, remark the two professors approvingly, 'Any employee at 3M can propose to start a new business'.

Researchers on both sides of the Atlantic are encouraged to spend 15% of their time on project work, developing their own ideas. John Howells, a technical manager at 3M's UK centre in Bracknell, Berks, reels off a list of businesses that have been born as a result. He was modestly involved with one of these himself, as a sponsor. 3M was at the time selling connectors for fibre-optic cables. 'One of the team thought of redesigning the product with cables attached' - as a factory-finished semi-system. This 'fibre-optic distribution unit' met with such success among customers, like cable TV companies, that production had to be put out to a subcontractor - which 3M later bought.

A more striking instance of intrapreneuring comes from Canon. In the late 1980s a UK-based technologist, Hiro Negishi, was looking for new developments to follow the camcorder in Europe. With the audio-visual camcorder, Canon - long known for cameras and reprographics - had taken a small step into the audio field where the UK had a lot of expertise. However nowhere had the problem of the stereo 'hot spot' been overcome - that is, the deterioration in sound quality which occurs when a listener moves away from a point equidistant from a pair of speakers.

Although a chemist, not a sound engineer - he claims that 'audio is my hobby' - Negishi set out to develop speakers giving a larger area of good quality sound. He built a prototype at home. The design worked and was patented, and the invention was taken up by Negishi's bosses in Japan. It moved Canon firmly into the audio world. The company's stereo speakers are now commercially available.

For Canon, 'wide imaging stereo' was pure serendipity: the chance result of a certain man being in a certain place at a certain time. It did not solve the eternal problems of how to harness personal enterprise in a business context, and then how to make it both productive and continuous. The 3M model has been much admired but all too seldom imitated. Chief executives concerned about the level of corporate creativity might also spend a few minutes with Ghoshal and Bartlett.

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