Universities need to start to focusing on intrapreneurship

Entrepreneurial skills have long been thought of as a way to boost the economy. Robert Phillips outlines why teaching intrapreneurial skills need to be a focus on university courses with the skill set's direct application to professional graduate roles.

Robert Phillips is a Senior Lecturer in Entrepreneurship at Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester

Entrepreneurship is not only for business school students. Throughout many universities compulsory and elective units are available and a raft of extracurricular activities from big money competitions, mentoring, speaker events, and workshops all help to boost skills.

About five per cent of students are self-employed six months after leaving university. Approximately ten per cent of that fraction found what we might think of as an innovative potential high growth entrepreneurial business rather than simply being a career where self-employment is the norm – such as freelance journalism or web developer. Now could be a good time for higher education to focus more explicitly on intrapreneurship and cater to the vast majority who will go into employment rather than start their own business.

Entrepreneurial skills have long been thought of as a way to upgrade the economy – smoothing the transition of graduates from university into jobs where they can be contributing to the organisation with minimal training. Reports going back decades all declare the importance of these skills.

Back in 2002 Gareth Roberts’ report SET for Success suggested including entrepreneurship in an annual two weeks of transferable skills training for PhD students. More recently, the Quality Assurance Agency’s Enterprise and Entrepreneurship Education (2018) underlined the importance of an entrepreneurial education for those going into employment, including in the public and third sectors. Chartered bodies and learned societies that advise degree programmes also agree – for example, the Royal Society has emphasised its commitment to these skills through the Entrepreneur in Residence scheme.

Intrapreneurship vs entrepreneurship

A quick look at the literature shows a thousand-fold difference in academic studies exploring entrepreneurship teaching rather than intrapreneurship, but we know from research that in growing a company it loses its entrepreneurial spirit. Rules, regulations and standard operating procedures take over and people become siloed in their particular niche with little global view of what the company as a whole is doing.

However, intrapreneurship can be more effective at creating successful innovations than entrepreneurship perhaps due to the extra resources available in large companies despite the barriers.

Intrapreneurship is more than just “business skills” and has some surprising similarities with entrepreneurship. Many activities for teaching entrepreneurial competencies – such as those in the EntreComp Framework – are also good for intrapreneurship, but they just need to be framed in the right way. For example, companies have suggested pitching skills to be a key component of intrapreneurship – so you can pitch ideas to senior management to allocate funds to your project.

So, what else can we do to improve? The answer is not necessarily to focus on large corporates. Traditional intrapreneurship teaching has centred around case studies and group work looking at corporate problems. Having spoken to alumni, they suggest that internships or projects with a start-up or SME, rather than the high-profile large corporates that many students aspire to, would provide useful training for an intrapreneur. These opportunities allow interns to see many aspects of a business at once and develop a lean start-up and customer focused mentality that is transferable to other organisations.

Large companies have recognised the importance of these skills. KPMG, Amazon, Santander, and Tata all sponsor student entrepreneurship societies – which can have many thousands of members – and headhunt the best entrepreneurial graduates for corporate jobs.

While there are some good examples of companies that support intrapreneurship, such as 3M, Toyota and Google, how many actual intrapreneurs can you name? As with entrepreneurship, aspirational figures and narrative stories showing career paths are critical for encouraging interest. While many entrepreneurs are household names, their corporate cousins are much less known.

What universities can do

Assessments in entrepreneurship classes can be tweaked for those interested in intrapreneurship. I get students to think about how they can add value to an existing product or service from a large company in their own subject area. They are expected to search for market data, speak to potential customers and predict likely sales, and argue for funds to back the project. Feedback from alumni indicates employers have shown great interest in this during interviews.

It also needs a basic understanding of organisational behaviour – where you will fit in and how you can find supporters within the organisation to help you. An idea pioneered by Nokia encouraged people to work in teams finding complementary skills elsewhere in the organisation – rather than hoarding ideas yourself – by only rewarding teams rather than individuals.

There are benefits to universities as well as the student for encouraging intrapreneurial skills. The APPG for Entrepreneurships report Enterprise Education (2018), mentions the importance of these skills in the wider jobs market, suggesting that applicants with these skills are more valued by employers.

Surveys indicate those with these skill sets have less periods of unemployment and earn higher salary when in employment – metrics which are captured by the HESA Graduate Outcome data and are therefore important for the university’s attractiveness to new students. Office for Students has now declared it expects at least 60 per cent of graduates to go into professional or managerial employment.

Students seeking to work in social enterprises will need these skills to secure stable incomes, such as government or council contracts, for their employers. Those who have ambitions to “green” their employers will need to be intrapreneurial to find ways of being eco-friendly yet cost effective.

With Covid showing the need for rapid changes to companies’ business models and big future challenges such as Brexit and climate change approaching, intrapreneurship skills are going to be key to a strong economy and universities should ensure graduates enter the corporate world with the skills needed to help their employers adapt to change.

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