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Into the intra

By Ian Lavis, Praxity

Empowering staff to be 'intrapreneurs' could give accounting firms a strong competitive edge.

Intrapreneurship – where staff are encouraged to be in-house entrepreneurs – has been slow to take off in professional services but this is set to change as firms seek agile new ways to drive growth.

The concept is simple. Your firm empowers employees to take the initiative and solve problems. In effect, the employees become entrepreneurs from within. They take risks, lead-on innovation and identify strategies and technologies to overcome barriers to business growth.

Every forward-thinking firm wants to nurture its employees, and most will say they already do, but intrapreneurship goes further. It’s about embracing creativity and innovation, and enabling employees to turn ideas into something of real value to the business. 

Apple, Facebook and Google are leading examples of intrapreneurship, otherwise known as corporate entrepreneurship. These companies positively encourage employees to develop radical ideas for business growth. Facebook’s ‘like’ button, one of the company’s most important innovations, was the product of encouraging engineering teams to collaborate on software projects.

American entrepreneur and author Gifford Pinchot III, the man credited with inventing the term intrapreneurship, was advocating the need for innovation in accountancy back in 2010: “Entrepreneurs and small and medium sized enterprises need accountants who can figure out how to account for new business models and new kinds of contractual relationships. So do innovators inside larger organizations.” 

Rewarding creative thinking

The concept was tested recently by Mazars, one of 64 accounting firms that share expertise through membership of Praxity, the world’s largest alliance of independent accounting and consulting firms.

Mazars launched an innovation challenge called ‘MazarsforGood’ to reward innovative ideas from young, aspiring entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs. The challenge encourages 20 to 30 year olds to develop an innovative product, service or process using technology and design. Participants are encouraged to “change companies for good in 90 seconds” by creating a video and promoting it via social networks.

“Partners should trust their staff more, empower them and develop their entrepreneurial skills”

The initiative is supported by David Nosibor, an innovation evangelist and self-proclaimed ‘doer with ideas’. David, who works within Corporate Learning and Communications at Mazars Asia Pacific, is on a mission to build communities of intrapreneurs and “enable them to mature their innovative ideas so they can transform the workplace and the way we do business”.

Writing for the online news hub e27, which supports start-ups and innovation in Singapore, David says partners “should trust their staff more, empower them and develop their entrepreneurial skills”. He encourages firms to act now, not later.

“Industries such as professional services are becoming commoditised and automation is looming. Employees need to develop new skills to remain relevant and competitive in tomorrow’s world,” he says. “There are bright minds in any firm and let’s tell the truth, all of them don’t aspire to climb up the ranks and get in the C-suite. But they have other aspirations and I feel the role of a large firm is to help them detect and develop these ambitions.”

Interestingly, David states that companies should nurture employee aspirations even if it goes against a firm’s core business, describing it as “an opportunity to ‘create’ clients with potentially innovative and sustainable business models”, adding: “You want to support their aspirations because you will reap benefits off them and build a community of entrepreneurial advocates. We could call them advopreneurs.”

Team-based innovation

Another Praxity participant firm, William Buck, has also been exploring the concept of intrapreneurship with an initiative called ‘shooting arrows’, which was launched after bringing in experts from Harvard Business School. Employees at the Australian firm were encouraged to come up with innovative new ways of doing business and if there was a good outcome from the client’s perspective, these ‘shooting arrows’ were examined by a think tank to test if the idea can be applied elsewhere.

Nick Hatzistergos, Chairman of William Buck, said the idea was to encourage innovation through teamwork. He added: “It’s not just asking an individual to go away for a while and think of something because, generally, ideas come out quickly. We are still exploring this, but anything that fosters discussion and makes minds apply themselves is healthy.”

Investing in ideas

Similarly, US Praxity participant firm BKD encourages intrapreneurship in the form of an investment fund to support new ideas for business development.  Jerry Henderson, BKD’s National Industry Partner, Manufacturing & Distribution, said: “There is no doubt we embrace this idea. We have to continue to adapt to changing circumstances and to look out for and seize opportunities.”

Commenting on how BKD fosters innovation, he added: “Any person can bring forward an idea and those ideas deemed to be worth exploring are funded through the investment fund. This could be anything from working in a new industry to providing a new service or a new way to serve clients through technology.”

This open-minded approach has helped BKD become more agile in response to changing market conditions. Jerry explained: “One of the key challenges in the US is we have had a lot of consolidation within the sector.  A lot of those companies that were the typical bread and butter clients of BKD have seen the need to reinvent themselves. Therefore, we have developed a very robust private equity business and we are continuing in this direction.”

Investing in intrapreneurs is key to driving growth according to Datuk Zaiton Mohd Hassan, President of the ACCA Malaysia Advisory Committee. In an article published in ACCA’s AB magazine, she says: “Any successful company must have a number of intrapreneurs to see future trends and meet them before their competitors do. Intrapreneurs will eventually become the building blocks of a company’s executive teams and leaders. They are the driving force that moves a company forward and have the potential to rise to the top as they understand the company from all levels.”

Multiple benefits at Mazars

Mazars tested the potential of intrapreneurship with an innovation lab in Singapore.

Five intrapreneurs worked at ‘Impact HUB’ in Singapore every Friday for eight weeks on a new service. They developed a ‘concierge minimum viable product (MVP) ready to be tested with potential clients.  This is a version of a product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers before over-committing resources.

“Participants loved the experience and partners were impressed with what the team developed in eight weeks,” says David Nosibor. “This adventure is still in progress as we speak and it still could fail but that’s not the point. The experience has had multiple benefits for our organisation in terms of employee engagement and innovation.”