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How to Promote Intrapreneurship in China

5 mins read

“Disrupt or be disrupted”

Corporates these days are struggling to assert their influence in the marketplace, especially with the awakening of numerous disruptive innovations.

Popularised by Steve Jobs in 1985, the term “Intrapreneurship” reignited worldwide attention in recent years as one of the key solutions towards disruption. In the context of China, it is often far harder for large organisations to advocate intrapreneurial behaviours. Traditional beliefs and practices commonly adopted by Chinese Corporates, more often than not, hinder the cultivation of intrapreneurship.

Here, we put forth several suggestions on ways you can stimulate intrapreneurship within your organization:

1) Bolster Cross-Interactions Inside Out

As compared to the more collaborative and cooperative management style adopted by Western companies, Chinese companies generally prefer a more straightforward management structure. Each department functions separately and any opportunities to interact are kept to a bare minimum. Such an arrangement deprives communal learning and prohibits employees from developing a holistic understanding of the company. While employees are highly proficient in their field of expertise, they lack the business acumen - essential for an intrapreneur - to truly innovate for the company.

Lenovo, for example, is able to remain the forefront of innovation partly due to the amalgamation of an east-meet-west organisational culture- something that is rarely observed in Chinese firms. Cross-cultural and cross-functional teams were set up to foster greater collaborations and sharing of knowledge between employees. An online knowledge platform were also created to connect employees coming from different backgrounds, contributing unique ideas, insights and outlook on key issues and solutions. With a global perspective and a sharper business acuity, employees are able to introduce more innovative solutions and practices.

2) Incentivise Risk-taking Behaviors

In China, traditional corporates tend to knowingly or unknowingly adopt a practice of Confucianism, where hierarchies take precedence over actual ability and achievement. The high power distance in Chinese corporates resulted in employees following closely to the boundaries of their delegated tasks. This stifles employees’ creativity as they lack autonomy to experiment and take risks, which are essential traits of an intrapreneur.

An effective way to counter this issue is to entice employees with both monetary and non-monetary incentives. Company incentivising innovation seeks to latch on innovative intrapreneurs with potentially disruptive ideas to venture within the company, while keeping them satisfied. Tencent rewards employees with cash prizes from 500 RMB for re-designing an interface to 1 mil. RMB for more impactful innovations. This hinted sign of success as it spurred innovative employees like Alex Bai, a former product director of Tencent. Bai once received 300,000 RMB reward for the enhancement of Tencent’s marketing business. Similar sentiments on incentive practices were also echoed by the central Government as they affirmed an incentive policy.

That being said, Corporates should not belittle the importance of non-financial incentives such as providing recognition for innovative behaviours. A study has shown that while the monetary incentives do increase innovation behaviour, it’s impact is only limited to a certain level, at which any further financial reward would reduce innovative practices.

3) Celebrate Successes, Embrace Mistakes

Mianzi, giving face, is another common social trait that is of significance in China. Chinese have a heightened-sensitivity towards failure as they often view it as an embarrassment that smears their reputation. They are inclined to favor a tried-and-tested method instead of creating something entirely new and unprecedented. Once again, the risk-averse nature of Chinese employees is unforgiving to foster a culture of intrapreneurship.

To address this, traditional corporates are encouraged to perceive mistakes as an opportunity for company’s future growth and improvement. This can come in the form of providing rewards in both tangible and intangible forms as this can have strong impacts on the effectiveness of a long-igniting intrapreneurial spirit. It is evident in the case of Lenovo that showing appreciation to employees for their hard work is an obvious necessity in the professional world. In 2012, Lenovo announced the company year-on-year net profit was rising by 73%. To celebrate the company’s collective success, employees from all aspects of the company, on average, received 2,000RMB. By singing praises to an innovation and giving generous recognition at every stage of a development, to employees of myriad backgrounds, is powerful to spur employees’ enthusiasm from ideation to actionable innovation.

4) Handpick Your Dream Team

While not necessarily an issue only Chinese corporates deal with, singling out intrapreneurs from existing employees or potential new hires is no easy feat. Employers typically live under the misconception that current high-performing individuals are synonymous with high potential intrapreneurs. In reality, that may not be the case. The unique characteristic traits displayed by the latter are often not observed in people who excel in a large organization.

Identifying the right person with the right skill set is paramount in promoting a healthy culture of intrapreneurs within your company. Successful companies hold events such as hackathons to attract top talents compatible to their company’s mission and vision. Daimler China held its first hackathon in Beijing last year, which drew 75 participants, to develop creative ideas and prototypes targeted at automotive e-commerce. This is seen as a win-win situation for both parties. Participants gained rewards and insights into functions of the company, while Daimler benefited from external perspectives and connected with suitable personnel.

In addition to such events, several corporates took to cultivating and incubating ideas within their organisation. For instance, Huawei Openlab, first established in 2012 in Suzhou, aim to build a robust ecosystem and providing customer-centric innovative solutions. That same year, GE set up its China Technological Centres (CTC) in Chengdu, Xi’an and Harbin to accelerate internal innovation projects. Such efforts, along with flexible options and risk-friendly environment, enable corporates to lure potential like-minded intrapreneurs into their innovation teams, bringing the company to greater heights.


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