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 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”Merriam-Webster.com 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)||🟢||🟢||🟡|
|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.