How do dictionaries define intrapreneurship?

Ever since the term intrapreneurship became popular in the 1980s, there have been a number of different definitions of what it is and what it entails. This summer, I did an overview of some lexical definitions, and their differences.

The short version: The differences are perhaps more interesting for someone studying dictionaries than intrapreneurship. On a critical note, one might question why these resources are paid for and recommended to students by many universities.

The Wiley Encyclopedia of Management from 2015 doesn’t have a unique entry for intrapreneurship, but mentions it under ”entrepreneurship”:

Entrepreneurship inside organizations has sometimes been termed “corporate entrepreneurship” or “intrapreneurship.” Both usages emphasize the role of the entrepreneur as one who organizes a venture and bears some degree of risk in return for rewards.

Arnold C Cooper, Wiley Encyclopedia of Management (2015) 1

This is a fairly broad yet distinct definition: it includes all organisations, but interestingly requires both skin in the game and something to gain. The latter one connects to a common question in research on intrapreneurship: what drives the intrapreneur?

The Wiley definition basically equates intrapreneurship with entrepreneurship in organisations, which is probably the most popular and easy way to explain the concept. The only caveat is perhaps that it depends on an agreed-upon definition of entrepreneurship.

The Cambridge Business English Dictionary from 2011 have entries for both intrapreneur and intrapreneurship, the latter being:

”the willingness or ability of people within a large company to take direct responsibility for turning ideas into profitable new products, services, businesses, etc.”

Cambridge business English dictionary (2011)2

Pretty straightforward but exclusive: it reduces the possible host organization to ”a large company”, stipulates direct responsibility as a method and profit as an outcome (or at least the desired outcome).

Oxford Reference boasts ”2 million digitized entries across Oxford University Press’s Dictionaries, Companions and Encyclopedias”. Unfortunately, not one of them is ”Intrapreneurship”3. There is however three entries on ”intrapreneur”, presented here in order of publication date:

A Dictionary of Human Resource Management (2008):

”employees who behave in an entrepreneurial manner within an organization. For example, they might use their initiative to develop new ideas for products or services, devise new ways of working, or suggest systems and processes to improve efficiency.”

Edmund Heery and Mike Noon, 20084

This is a reasonably broad definition, as it does not mandate a productive outcome, and it encompasses all types of organisations and employees5. Some might argue that a mere suggestion from an employee doesn’t make her or him an intrapreneur. Luckily, they might also find a possible answer in another distinction, made by Kte’pi (2012), I’ll get back to that one.

A Dictionary of Business and Management (2009):

”An executive or senior manager of a large firm who uses the entrepreneurial approach to management.”

Jonathan Law, 20096

This definition diverges from most others. Here, only leadership in power to mandate corporate entrepreurship, by creating internal markets for services and thus, like in Haier’s Rendanheyi, ”giving subsidiary companies the choice of using the internal services or of going outside to independent suppliers”, can be intrapreneurs.

Jonathan Law recognises that corporate entrepreneurship mandated through command and control also can also be attempted in the public sector, noting the 1990 National Health Service and Community Care Act in the UK. Law briefly also mentions the problems with this approach7.

Law’s definition helps to prove that the understanding of what intrapreneurship means is fragmented, but it can be considered an outlier. Most scholars or practioners would probably not agree to this definition.

”A Dictionary of Economics” (2009):

A manager whose status changes from company employee to proprietor of an independent firm. This change is encouraged and possibly financed by the former employer, in the expectation that increased autonomy and improved incentives for the intrapreneur will raise the parent firm’s profits.

Black et al. (2009)8.

This is a narrow but less divergent definition of the term. It excludes intrapreneurs in other organisations than commercial, but also limits intrapreneurs to the first generation leadership in successful corporate and voluntary spin-offs.

Merriam Webster (2020):

Merriam Webster also doesn’t have an entry for intrapreneurship. It does however offer the following definition for intrapreneur:

”a corporate executive who develops new enterprises within the corporation” Dictionary, s.v. “intrapreneur,” accessed November 22, 2020

Once again, the intrapreneur here is a senior manager within a large company (my interpretation: C-suite). I can’t help but wonder where the idea that only executives can be intrapreneurs come from. The latter part of the description however, defining the intrapreneurial project as an enterprise, I find much more fitting.

”The Encyclopedia of New Venture Management” (2012)

As a counterpoint to A Dictionary of Economics, one could consider the following passage about Corporate Entrepreneurship and Innovation:

One currently accepted description of corporate entrepreneurship is the investment or funding of a new venture that is typically different from the organization’s core business domain; however, the entity typically remains a part of the existing organization.

Matthew R. Marvel (2012) ”Encyclopedia of New Venture Management”10

Kte’pi also makes an interesting distinction between ”champions” of intrapreneurial ventures – a role I interpret to be a venture’s unofficial product manager: seeing the venture through to success – and intrapreneurs:

Whereas intrapreneurs originate ideas and innovations, champions need not necessarily be the originators of the ideas behind the ventures they champion. The role is an unofficial one.

Bill Kte’pi (2012) ”Encyclopedia of New Venture Management”11Kte’pi, B. (2012), ”Encyclopedia of New Venture Management”, Sage Publishing, May 2012)

To wrap things up, here’s a concluding attempt at showing some of the different definitions above:

Definition”Any employee””Any organisation””Any venture”
A Dictionary of Human Resource Management (2008)🟢🟢🟢
A Dictionary of Business and Management (2009)🔴🔴🟡
A Dictionary of Economics (2009)🔴🔴🔴
The Wiley Encyclopedia of Management (2016)🟢🟢🟡
Merriam Webster🔴🔴🔴
The Encyclopedia of New Venture Management (2012)🟢🟢🟢
The Cambridge Business English Dictionary (2011)🔴🔴🟢

It’s also worth noting that none of these definitions explicitly mention consent (or ignorance) from the highest echelons of management or ownership. Intrapreneurs can, at least according to most of the definitions above, drive change with or without the consent and knowledge of their superiors.

EDIT: I forgot to mention my favourite among the lexical definitions: Wikipedia‘s:

Intrapreneurship is the act of behaving like an entrepreneur while working within a large organization.

(Photo by Alba foto, Flickr)


Intrapreneurs in government, intelligence and beyond

Intrapreneurs are often described as ”dreamers that do”, and in this blog I want to explore both who they are and what they do.

This exploration will be open, but the main focus will be on government and more specifically the military, law enforcement, and intelligence services.

There are three main reasons for this:

  1. It’s extreme. Law enforcement and armed forces are often huge organisations that rely on both coherence and disruption in order to function and to adapt to changing needs, demands and situations. Given their monopoly on violence and their duties, the consequences of failed or successful intrapreneurial endeavours can be more important than in other types of organisations. Hopefully though, learnings from and about intrapreneurs with a license to kill can still be of interest to others.
  2. It’s understudied. At least it seems to be. Most of the researched intrapreneurship is either in other types of government services or corporations. However, the few relevant exceptions that I have found so far are among the field’s most interesting. I promise to share them with you. One hope I have of this blog is of course to learn about research and cases that I haven’t found so far. Please do comment or contact me.
  3. It’s practical. This fall, I happen to write a thesis on governmental intrapreneurship in Intelligence Analysis. I hope that this blog can serve both as an exhaust and as a catalyst for that work.

However, since most literature on intrapreneurship and my own personal experiences have nothing to do with military or law enforcement, a lot will be 100% civilian.

Do you wonder why this post’s picture and this site’s favicon is a rocket on a fishing rod? It’s obviously free to interpret but there’s also a very interesting story relating to it, that I hope to tell you more about soon.