Why Intrapreneurship is the Future of the Corporate World


A fresh wave of innovation is championing change-makers and seeing intrapreneurship flourish.

Collective Hub x ING Direct

They say large corporations aren’t all that innovative. The hungry spark with which they started is all-too-often stifled by large-scale expansion, risk mediation and a ho-hum, business-as-usual mentality. Without innovation, however, a company risks getting too comfortable and losing touch with an increasingly changeable market. It’s why Blockbuster and Borders went bust. Why Pan Am was permanently grounded. And why Kodak’s moment came, and went. But what if these fallen giants had tapped into the innovation-rich resource that was likely right under their noses – or more to the point – on their payroll? Taking a cue from the smaller, nimbler start-up scene, some corporates are investing time, money and energy into fostering intrapreneurship – where employees are encouraged to behave with the passion and creativity of an entrepreneur while working within an organisation. They are the businesses disrupting their own businesses, and in turn, their industries. They are the ones with rapidly growing private market valuations. They are the new corporates.

ING Direct Australia is a company that’s brought employee-led innovation to the fore. “It’s about mindset – being curious, challenging the norm, changing the norm and seeing what’s possible,” says Fiona Monfrooy, the company’s executive director of human resources. “You could say it’s in our DNA. Not so long ago, ING Direct was a start-up. We came to Australia with an entrepreneurial mindset and a determination to create something different in banking.” That they did, against the odds, when this subsidiary of the multinational Dutch bank ING Group became Australia’s first online bank. “Everyone said we couldn’t do it, but here we are today.”

Sound familiar? Nelson Mandela’s line, “It always seems impossible until it’s done,” is practically the entrepreneur’s – and intrapreneur’s – mantra. As Richard Branson brazenly put it, “Screw it, let’s do it.” The concept of intrapreneurship first took hold in the ’80s, when Steve Jobs described the team behind the first Macintosh computer as “what is commonly known now as intrapreneurship… a group of people going in essence back to the garage, but in a large company”. Along with Apple, many other companies have prospered and endured as a result of intrapreneurship. The Sony PlayStation was created by then-junior Sony staff member Ken Kutaragi; while over at 3M, the Post-it note was born of the combined inventiveness of two staffers.

Fostering intrapreneurship takes a two-pronged approach. Here’s how to ensure your workplace is brimming with new ideas and innovation (and why that will change it for the better):

For budding intrapreneur employees: what traits do you need to develop in order to thrive as an intrapreneur? 
“I think to not only survive but thrive in the new corporate, you need to be curious, embrace change, allow yourself to fail… but learn from that,” says Fiona. “It’s about having ambitions rather than goals, and challenging yourself beyond what you think you can achieve.” At ING Direct, sustainability is a focus (ING is, in fact, the world’s most sustainable bank according to Sustainalytics) – a purpose they pursue through two programs: Dreamstarter, an initiative designed to help launch, accelerate and scale social enterprise start-ups (it has supported more than 50 social businesses and projects since its establishment in 2014, including sleepwear brand One Night Stand), and a 12-year-strong partnership with the Cerebral Palsy Alliance, which has included staff mentoring of young people with the physical disability.

“It’s critical to have a clearly defined business purpose and one that goes beyond profit,” says Fiona. “People need to feel that they’re truly making a difference to people’s lives. They want to be connected to what the business is trying to achieve, be excited by it, it has to be something that truly resonates with them.” Purpose-driven intrapreneurs are not thinking, “How can I make more money,” but rather, “What impact can I have on the world?” – an invaluable attitude when it comes to corporate social responsibility. Companies would do well, then, to view their employees less as cogs, more as creatives, and design an environment that nurtures their purpose – their ‘why’ – and the germination and realisation of their ideas.

For leaders building an intrapreneurial team: what should you be doing to foster this in the workspace? 
“You have to let people flourish according to their strengths, to get the best out of them for themselves and the business,” says Fiona. “I think that holds equally for growing a culture of innovation – give people the space to be themselves, to play to their strengths – from that people are less afraid to fail… It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’ve come from in the business, anyone can have a great idea.”

But all too often, people might have great ideas but no resources – and in particular, time – to implement them. Google famously spawned something of a trend in its ‘20 per cent time’, when founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin wrote in their 2004 IPO letter, “We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20 per cent of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google”. This philosophy spawned Google News, Gmail and AdSense – and has seen much iteration amongst Silicon Valley’s biggest tech brands. Creative powerhouse Adobe has Kickbox, containing “US$1000, a bar of chocolate and the chance to take your company by storm. No questions asked.”

“There are a lot of creative ideas that do not match the filter of the company,” said Adobe’s chief strategist and vice president of creativity, Mark Randall, at this year’s Intrapreneurship Conference. “We are looking for the wild card, the outlier, the explosive new idea that’s hard to recognise. When you trust people, they’ll live up to your expectations. They’re the CEO of their idea. They’ll allocate their resources and figure out how to move ahead.”

Staff at the company can use their US$1000 prepaid credit card to spend on whatever they want – which will hopefully help them trial or implement their idea – without ever needing to fill out an expense form, or even justify their spending habits to a manager, which encourages those staff members who may not feel comfortable, or in a position, to pitch their ideas to senior management.

At ING Direct, an annual global Innovation Bootcamp gets ideas brewing: “Anyone can have a great idea, and this program gives people across the business the opportunity to work together on real business challenges,” explains Fiona. Finalists are flown to Amsterdam where they pitch to the ‘Lion’s Den’ – a group of senior global ING executives. The whole process lasts around six months, giving people ample time to evolve their concept in-house. Meanwhile, blue chip companies like Coca-Cola, IBM, Campbell Soup Company, Tesco and Allianz have created their own innovation divisions. Take IBM, which has developed an entire team – Millennial Corps – to cultivate an environment conducive to intrapreneurship, made up of more than 4000 global staffers dedicated to improving Millennials’ experience at the company. Not that innovation has an age limit.

Most importantly: how will intrapreneurship factor into your future both as an employee and a manager?
“The new corporate has greater generational diversity than ever before,” says Fiona, “and this will only increase over the next few years. People are working until much later in life so you could have people who’ve been with a business for five decades, who’ve grown there, literally put their lives into a business. They’re working alongside people possibly just entering the workplace so we’re embracing a real mix of mindsets, experience and knowledge.” As well as offering employees global opportunities, the new corporates are also, Fiona says, creating more agile and flexible roles, like those traditionally reserved for the start-up space.

“[People] may plug in and out of the corporate environment, work for start-ups, consult or study part-time. With global accessibility, it’s even easier to work for New York, London or locally. You can work when and where you want to. People are more in control.” So what should these people be focusing on if they want to kill it in a new corporate? “Who knows what the future holds?” says Fiona. “There are roles today that didn’t exist 10, even five years ago. I think ultimately it comes down to mindset – it’s your ability to embrace, even flourish in, times of change. That’s really what’s key.”


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