The Changing Face of Corporate Intrapreneurship

In early September 85 smart people gathered for two days at the Pfizer conference center in New York City to talk about their practical experience in identifying, engaging, driving value from and (at times) failing with the most innovative employees in their respective businesses. The 2016 Corporate Intrapreneur Summit was 100% on point in targeting key areas of interest around how intrapreneurs in a corporate setting.

Throughout the program, speakers from CISCO, USAA, Whirlpool, Vodafone, Farmers Insurance, BASF, Sony Music, Northwestern Mutual, joined thought leaders like Yuri van Geest (Exponential Organizations) and Alexa Clay (The Misfit Economy) to shared a mix of strategic and tactical insights. Some consistent themes came through these official (and informal) discussions, which have been collated below. Take a look and let me know your thoughts:

A deeper focus on personality traits of intrapreneurs

Up until recently intrapreneurs were often treated as a solid block of people within an organization, that yearned to identify, build and launch new, innovative ideas. That is no longer the case. These valuable, strategically important employees are now being viewed with far more depth and sophistication. Perspectives relate to their motivations, skill sets, personality traits and corresponding ways to drive value from them were examined in key detail. Examples of perspectives presented included effective identification of types of intrapreneurs, providing tasks based on an individual’s specific skill sets, and approaches to motivating these individuals over time.

Tiered engagement and value driving approach

Time and again, speakers such as Janelle Dziuk (USAA) and Kit Haines-Bornheimer (Vodafone) referenced approaches that support tiered engagement approaches for their intrapreneurs. In the past we heard about employee intrapreneur networks, as a way to connect individuals over time and efficiently drive value. This thinking has now been extended to include tiers of networks, where say a tightly focused group is provided a high-touch level of support, where other broader groups are engaged in a lighter-touch model. This approach, sometime explicitly presented, and sometimes casually referenced, appears to be taking hold within the marketplace.  Driving this approach is the continued pressure on already tight Innovation Program resources, to further scale organizational impact.

Given the constant changes within corporate innovation program leadership and the changing cycles of an organization, maintaining focus and building success over time is never easy.

The need for ongoing maintenance…

In presentations and conversations corporate intrapreneur programs are often referred to in a flippant, project-based way, that drives me crazy. The reality is that these efforts are far from that, and require ongoing maintenance and support efforts to drive success over time. Given the constant changes within corporate innovation program leadership and the changing cycles of an organization, maintaining focus and building success over time is never easy. Dan Seewald (Pfizer) talked about the extensive support efforts by his colleagues to ensure that their network of intrapreneurs continue to engage and drive value over time.

…Aligned with a more balanced strategic focus

With intrapreneur-focused efforts becoming an established value driver for innovation leaders, there was more talk this year about the need to develop strategic frameworks to guide these efforts over time. Harvey Wade talked to the overarching strategic framework that guide the broader innovation effort at Cisco Systems, with a focus on efforts to engage intrapreneurs (as both innovation professionals and employees spread across the organization. Similarly,  Jennifer Hirsch (Johnson & Johnson) talked to the framework that has been developed to engage their most innovative employees.

…Within the context of a changing world

There was lots of discussion around how broad societal changes are impacting corporate driven programs to better engage employees. Yuri van Geest talked to a new era of competition, and how a select group of startups and established organizations are effectively leveraging people (often not direct employees) in different ways to fuel growth. From a similar, direction Alexa Clay provided examples of business success sourced by non-traditional people. For me, it was great to see new and more established thinking colliding (positively) with established corporate norms.

Difference between intrapreneurship and corporate entrepreneurship

In an enlightening presentation by Ezra Kucharz (CBS Corporation), there was an interesting discussion around the differences between intrapreneurship and corporate entrepreneurship. He positioned intrapreneurship as a more culturally driven approach (often focused around employee engagement and skill development), and corporate entrepreneurship as more focused on the development of specific ideas (often in a skunk works type setting). I thought that it was an interesting perspective and one that made practical sense to me. As I was listening to the rest of the sessions, I often found myself considering which camp various activities fell into.

Increasing academic interest and research into intrapreneurs

With further maturity and depth of thinking within the corporate marketplace, it seems that academic institutions and faculty are becoming more active in researching the space. Svetlana Dimovski (BASF) referenced some key academic research that is driving efforts at their organization. Mark Leung (The Rotman School of Management) and Mike Rehorst (Northwestern Mutual Insurance) discussed a new model to engage innovative talent within an organization.

Continued focus on idea execution

It was refreshing to hear presenters and panelists continually reference (and encourage discussions around) the need to focus on idea development and generating financial impact. Too often this is blithely skipped over by innovation leaders, who mistake activity for actual results. Again, this represents a further maturing of the competency and closer alignment with corporate leadership’s needs. The clear message from presenters was that intrapreneur efforts need to be generate a financial impact, at some point. Christina Mott (Marsh) gave an excellent presentation around the opportunities and challenges in developing ideas within a large, complex organization.

It appears that this year the focus on driving behavior change for innovative employees has hit a tipping point in terms of focus by corporate leaders, volume and range of activities undertaken, and achieving critical mass as a core element of mature, corporate Innovation Programs. This is a welcome sign that the marketplace continues to grow and develop over time. Let’s see where it all goes from here?

Let me know if there are other key trends that I may have missed?

By Anthony Ferrier

About the Author


Anthony is a well-regarded thought leader around corporate innovation issues, with a specific focus on engaging employees to drive business impact. He is the COO of ExOxo, working with Yuri van Geest and partners to help organizations thrive in an exponential world. He is also the CEO of Culturevate, working with some of the world’s leading universities to train employees on innovation skills and inspire innovative cultures. Anthony is a widely read author, speaker and advisor to organizations such as Bristol-Myers Squibb, Fidelity Investments, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, ADP and USAA. He previously led The BNY Mellon innovation program and has a Master of Commerce (University of Sydney) and Bachelor of Economics (University of Newcastle).

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