Public agencies need to build a capacity for intrapreneurship. Intrapreneurs invent new practices, programs and solutions to address problems and opportunities faced by an organization. These individuals are passionate about the organizations they work for and do not just accept the status quo. They bootstrap and bootleg, they might be viewed as radical (or guerrilla) by their peers, and they want to move their organizations ahead. At the Central Intelligence Agency, Don Burke and Sean Dennehy realized that the intelligence community did not have or allow for open information sharing. In response to this, they created ‘Intellipedia,’ a Wikipedia-like clearinghouse for intelligence information that is now used widely across the intelligence community. Similarly, Richard Boly, the director of eDiplomacy at the U.S. Department of State (DOS), led a team whose goal was to advance diplomacy through technology and knowledge-sharing platforms. They created ‘Diplopedia,’ a Wikipedia-like encyclopedia of DOS expertise.
The public sector needs to find ways to harness the talent, energy, and zeal of these individuals. Simply put, the current stance that includes stifling their creativity, subjecting them to bureaucratic minutia, and even ignoring their ideas is not only wrong but irresponsible. We need innovators within our public agencies. Our best chance at keeping our talent is to allow them to design the future public agencies, public services, and public goods.
No more is the old adage “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” acceptable. Challenges such as budget constraints, shifting demographics, increased competition, and the desire for growth all create a need for more intrapreneurs. The Center of Economic Opportunity (CEO) was developed by a group in then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration to deliver new solutions for residents living in poverty through programs to improve human capital and lessen economic vulnerabilities. In 2006, Mayor Bloomberg established the Commission for Economic Opportunity, which analyzed the causes, scope and consequence of poverty. From its study, the commission presented its findings and urged the city to focus on the three challenges in the following populations: the working poor, young adults (ages 16-24) and families with children. Since then, CEO has continually partnered with other agencies and organizations to pilot new initiatives and sustain existing programs.
To be successful at intrapreneurship, it is imperative that organizations follow a rigorous process, and hone this process over time. The intrapreneurship process has several phases that take an idea from infancy and scale up for mass success: generalization and mobilization, advocacy and screening, experimentation, commercialization, and diffusion and implementation.
Idea creation and mobilization is the first stage in this process. Ideas are what drive innovation. Idea mobilization requires organizations to take an idea and make it fit within the larger context of the organization. This stage is fraught with frustration because ideas are not generated consistently and cannot be forced and, also, the organization must be ready to use the ideas.
When an idea has been offered and committed to, advocacy and screening of the idea can take place. This involves evaluating the idea in detail to account for risk. Once the idea has been screened and evaluated, organizations can begin to advocate for the undertaking of the idea. All ideas need a champion and someone who will stand by its development throughout the process. Contingent on the organization, locating an advocate can be extremely difficult while others make it easy for intrapreneurs to pitch their ideas to their organization’s decision-makers.
For instance, the acting deputy administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Kana Enomoto, built the “PeopleFirst” team, which promotes a culture of learning as well as collaboration throughout the agency. Through such initiatives as bi-monthly managers’ forums and food carts to increase engagement for better knowledge-sharing, decision-making and problem-solving, the agency has grown in employee satisfaction and idea generation.
Similarly, in 1993, Minnesota state and local officials created the Board of Government Innovation and Cooperation, an independent entity composed of executive and legislative officials whose mission was to foster a culture more receptive to change in Minnesota’s public sector. The board supported innovative programs and helped break through dysfunctional procedural barriers to eliminate redundant services in multiple levels of government.
Following idea screening and advocacy, scientific experimentation must be completed to determine an idea’s feasibility. Among the things being tested for in the experimentation phase are the limits of the idea, places where the idea can be deployed, modifications required, and the actual product that will be commercialized. The experimentation phase offers more substantive evidence for idea feasibility instead of just opinion. In the same tradition of some of the world’s greatest innovators such as Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Morse, experimentation is the only true way to reach innovation. Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, noted that he knew 1,000 ways not to make a light bulb before he knew the way to make a light bulb. He had far more attempts than successes; intraprenuers will be no different.
When experimentation does not take place, the price can be costly. The Federal Bureau of Investigation experienced a resounding and costly failure in their development of a Virtual Case File software whose aim was to modernize the FBI’s IT infrastructure into one that was more comprehensive and useful to agents. $170 million in taxpayer dollars was spent in the development stage of the process in 2003 and by 2005, the project had been completely abandoned
. The project experienced various issues that ranged from repeated changes in the software design, poor architectural decisions, repeated turnover in management, and scope creep, to name a few. So, nearly five years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, FBI agents were still using paper files to manage cases. The lack of experimentation on their idea led to a massive failure and loss in productivity for the agency. In 2012, the FBI launched Sentinel, a $451 million Web-based system that allows agents to search case files and manage their cases digitally
Following experimentation, a commercialization plan must be developed to come up with the best and most efficient way to help the target audience find this product useful and desirable. No matter the tangible benefits of the product or how well it tested, a thoughtful commercialization plan is needed to push the product. Finally, diffusion and implementation are the last stages of the process that requires the organization to 1) diffuse the idea to the identified markets and 2) help customers use the product successfully. This means that organizations must, in essence, make it easy for the customer to find and use the products.
Being attuned to the realities of customers is necessary in this process. Understanding where potential customers go, what they like to do, and what they respond to makes all of the difference. For instance, understanding the likes and dislikes of a particular demographic might change how an organization deploys their new product. They might try to create a buzz for it on social networking sites or run commercials at a certain time of day to catch a particular demographic. With the end goal of getting the new idea in the hands of the consumer, this phase requires thoughtful marketing by the intrapreneur and the organization.
Overall, intrapreneurship creates an opportunity to disrupt current forces and introduce new ideas and practices into a given market that can change the entire perception of the market. In organizations seeking to encourage more intrapreneurship, employees and their ideas are currency. Finding the optimal balance between remaining competitive with day-to-day activities and finding employees the time and space to be creative is a challenge. Although it is a challenge, the opportunities to create new innovations are a gateway to improved processes and improved options for constituents.
Kevin C. Desouza is the associate dean for research in the College of Public Programs; an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs; and the interim director for the Decision Theater in the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development at Arizona State University. His research interests are in the areas of information and knowledge management, innovation systems, and strategic management of information systems.
Kendra L. Smith is a doctoral candidate in the School of Community Resources and Development within the College of Public Programs at Arizona State University.