Multinational corporations aren’t always known for their agility. Organizational change, product evolution, or rebranding—just some of the many ways in which a business has the potential to flex and move—can be laborious undertakings for companies with millions of stakeholders spread far and wide around the world.
But lately, leading companies are taking a page from the startup book and are beginning to leverage entrepreneurial approaches to drive business value. Dubbed "intrapreneurship" by early adopters, this trend highlights the value of people—the "intrapreneurs"—working from within a company who are accelerating change while continuing to drive business benefits. Economic constraints are forcing even large, established companies to act in a manner akin to the startup phase of much younger organizations; they’re leveraging the creativity and passion of their people to become more dynamic, more innovative, and more agile.
We are especially seeing the phenomenon of intrapreneurship emerging as a key part of a company’s corporate responsibility (CR) efforts. As a cross-disciplinary function, CR is focused on integration and therefore in a unique position to encourage collaboration and empower intrapreneurs to help deliver the company’s vision and strategic priorities. The intrapreneurial mindset helps drive innovation and uncover opportunities within the challenges of operating in a changing world. Many of these challenges are best tackled with integration across the business, and intrapreneurs—being tinkerers, brainstormers and ideas-sharers—are the most likely individuals to reach out and engage their peers in problem-solving across the company.
At Hilton Worldwide, this is the model we strive for, and some of our leading accomplishments, such as LightStay (which calculates our hotels’ impact), were developed as a result of this mentality. Intrapreneurs across the company identified the opportunity to create a new product to track the sustainability footprint of our properties. This tool was rolled out across the enterprise and has not only resulted in reduced energy, water use, waste, and carbon outputs, but also it has generated over $147 million in cost savings. Simultaneously, we have seen new sales within our hotels as properties meeting LightStay standards qualify to be featured on sustainable hotel lists, attracting guests specifically seeking this niche offering.
And stories of success, from a variety of industries, abound. Gib Bulloch, executive director of Accenture Development Partnerships, and his team work with corporations, governments, and NGOs to develop innovative, cross-sector solutions to global challenges. By matching Accenture’s expertise in the corporate world with Accenture Development Partnerships’ in the development sector, Bulloch is catalyzing the rate and sustainability of solutions to major global challenges, while simultaneously introducing the Accenture brand to new markets and strengthening relationships with existing multinational clients through new partnerships that drive development impact. Employees are energized, resulting in Accenture’s ability to retain high-value personnel, and the unique product offering is a carrot to recruit new talent.
At Coca-Cola, Dan Vermeer, the director of Sustainable Value Chain, works on water sustainability, seeking to help the company reach its commitment to become water neutral in its manufacturing and bottling operations (a goal that provides obvious social benefits while driving down risk for the company). Vermeer’s approach is rooted in a CR philosophy that is entrepreneurial and inclusive: in partnering with stakeholders within, across, and outside the company, he is able to develop solutions to water scarcity that are locally impactful, can be scaled globally, and provide real value to Coca-Cola. Water is a crucial input for the company and poses a major business challenge in a resource-constrained world. Vermeer and other intrapreneurs at Coca-Cola are helping the company creatively manage the cost volatility of a material resource.
At Hilton, we are fortunate to be part of an organization that is fertile ground for intrapreneurs as our company seeks to achieve our mission of becoming the preeminent hospitality company. This dynamic creates favorable conditions for the social entrepreneur, but these individuals still face challenges. First-movers and innovators are tall poppies—the first to get noticed and, as the expression goes, the first to get cut down. However, when intrapreneurship successfully takes hold within a company, the rewards reaped can be endless. The cycle of creativity, innovation, and problem-solving can be fruitful across departments and disciplines.
Building a coalition of willing partners within a large company will always be the toughest part of an intrapreneur’s journey. At Hilton, we are focusing on finding and supporting these intrapreneurs throughout the business, and then facilitating their collaboration. By engaging a newly established global CR Council—composed of senior leaders that represent all key business functions—we are creating a sustainable structure to evaluate and support promising innovations and collaborations.
Identifying intrapreneurs and uncovering their ideas is often just the starting point; proving their value and ROI is essential to large-scale adoption. Our team works with other business units to help intrapreneurs test their innovations and demonstrate the viability of their approach at a larger level. For example, a few intrapreneurs at our properties are testing composting within their Food & Beverage Teams. Recognizing the social impact and benefit to our business that such a practice can achieve, we are pursuing an enterprise-wide food waste pilot in the coming year. At Hilton Worldwide we understand the long road of a good idea, and the need to provide open pathways for innovation to help scale the best ideas further.
Intrapreneurship can come from anyone and anywhere and CR-focused approaches are becoming particularly agile mechanisms to spark innovation. So how then do you take advantage of this trend and lure out the shared-value-minded, I-want-to-save-the-world-through-my-business intrapreneurs at your company?
- Foster a culture where everyone has the responsibility and voice to identify opportunities to create shared value. Infuse this approach into your hiring practices and start building an employee base that is innovative and agile.
- Inspire your employees and offer them exposure to resources, trends, insights, and best practices that can accelerate their work. Leverage the power of grassroots movements within your company; let ideas bubble up from within and engage local office champions to encourage their peers and be voices for action.
- Recognize and reward best practices and provide your employees with exposure to individuals who have uncovered innovations; where possible, provide access to decision makers within your company that have the ability to pave the way for greater adoption of new ideas.
Ninety-six percent of consumers worldwide say it’s very important to them that companies change the way they operate to address societal issues. Intrapreneurship is the key to meeting these expectations while maintaining business value for your company. In leveraging the creativity and innovation of intrapreneurs, we can change the way we operate while maintaining a clear focus on our business imperatives. Agility isn’t just for startups anymore.