Here’s how AI turbocharges intrapreneurship

The past two decades have belonged to entrepreneurs. As innovative technologies reshaped our lives, ambitious founders became the icons of the age. Now it’s the intrapreneurs’ time to shine as well. 

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, intrapreneurship is similar to entrepreneurship except that it occurs inside an existing company. Wired described intrapreneurship as a new source of happiness at work, saying: “Whereas entrepreneurship is the act of spearheading a new business or venture, intrapreneurship is the act of spearheading new programs, products, services, innovations, and policies within your organization.” Intrapreneurship programs are win-wins for businesses and employees. They allow companies to leverage their best and brightest thinkers, and they offer talented workers autonomy over their careers. 

As artificial intelligence transforms workplaces and employees' roles within their organizations, it could also give rise to a more entrepreneurially-minded workforce. That’s not to say that we’re all going to quit our jobs to launch AI-powered startups. But with AI taking over low-level tasks and giving employees the luxury of more time in their days, we will likely see a move toward increased intrapreneurship. 

Leave the grunt work to AI 

Once upon a time, email and digital messages were a novel experience. Now they can be a nuisance. The average U.S. adult sends and receives 224 messages a day. The more often they message, the less productive–and less happy–they are by the end of the workday. No surprise there. How can you feel fulfilled by your work when you spend more than 20 hours a week in your inbox

Imagine if instead of getting caught in low-value email threads, employees were able to reclaim that time and invest it in new ideas. Rather than plodding through their inboxes, they could be researching customer pain points, analyzing anomalies in market trends, and brainstorming improvements to the sales funnel. More importantly, imagine that they could then use their findings to develop innovative solutions that break new ground for their companies. 

AI is making that possible. New tech platforms are capable of parsing and responding to emails and scheduling requests, unshackling employees from their inboxes for the first time in decades. AI is becoming a key tool in data-entry and report-generation, further relieving workers of the least cognitively rewarding tasks. One World Bank productivity expert stated, “All over the world, including in the United States and Europe, jobs are shifting from routine tasks, which are prone to automation, towards interactive tasks, which require advanced cognitive and behavioral skills.” 

The age of intrapreneurship 

AI systems will be the defining technologies of the coming decades, and they’re bringing with them a raft of new workplace trends. Intrapreneurship may well be one of them. Many people turn to entrepreneurship when they feel dissatisfied or unfulfilled in their current work. But the demands of launching a business can exacerbate their stresses, especially given the uncertainty inherent in the entrepreneurship process. Other people may feel entrepreneurial yearnings but resist pursuing them due to financial or familial obligations. Millennials are a fine example of this. Despite expectations that they would be “the most entrepreneurial generation,” this demographic is burdened by heavy student loan debt that makes it difficult to sacrifice a sure paycheck for the dream of self-employment

But that’s where employers have an opportunity. By giving workers freedom to explore and iterate on their ideas, they can produce groundbreaking new products and services while keeping their best people engaged. AI is already leveling the playing field between small businesses and Fortune 500s in terms of resource-efficiency and data-gathering. The next frontier in business competition is sustained innovation, and intrapreneurs will become invaluable sources of great ideas as AI frees them to do better, deeper work for their companies.

Instituting intrapreneurship 

People are happiest when they feel their lives have meaning, and there’s no better way to foster a sense of purpose than to let workers take ownership of their ideas – and the company’s future. 

The purpose of such programs is not to give employees free reign to use company resources on whatever catches their fancy on a given day. Leaders can ensure the success of an intrapreneurship policy by creating a clear structure and criteria for evaluating and approving employee projects. The process for turning employees into intrapreneurs starts with letting employees know which managers to approach with their ideas and how to self-evaluate their pitches to increase their chances of approval. The better everyone understands the business’ current needs and priorities, the more relevant employee initiatives can be. 

This is another aspect of managers’ roles as talent spotters. Managers should watch for employees who show particularly entrepreneurial tendencies. Tell-tale signs include self-motivation, directness in communication, adaptability, and a high degree of commitment to their work. By nurturing talented innovators and encouraging them to share their ideas, managers can set the tone for the types of programs they want to cultivate. 

Becoming an intrapreneur 

Intrapreneurship is a great way for employees to gain control of their day-to-day work experiences. Instead of reacting to assignments handed down from their bosses, they can pursue projects that inspire and motivate them. They can maximize the chances of gaining support for their ideas by keeping two principles in mind: 

1.     Go deep, not broad. The first thing to know about intrapreneurship is that employees should focus on specific challenges their company already faces. So be hyper-focused when pitching your manager. Explain the issue you’ve identified, how you plan to solve it, the impact your project will have, and the types of resources you need to get it done. Although intrapreneurship endeavors can be great opportunities for cultivating new skills, make sure you have enough baseline know-how to see the project through. Alternatively, you can showcase your leadership instincts by assembling an informal team of colleagues who possess the complementary skills the solution requires. 

2.     Earn buy-in before you present your idea. If you already have a track record of self-directed success, your bosses may give you some leeway. But if you’re new to intrapreneurship and want to make a good impression, find a champion for your idea. Figure out who stands to benefit most from your solution, and get their feedback before running it through the official channels. Having internal support before you’ve even pitched the concept will give you credibility with key decision-makers.   

We can all be intrapreneurs now

The most successful intrapreneurs – and the companies they work for – will use artificial intelligence to not only automate repetitive tasks but to drive progress as well. As employees become more familiar with AI platforms, they should look for ways to further leverage those capabilities within the organization, always thinking about new and better innovation. 

Founding a business isn’t an option for everyone. But professionals throughout the workforce can nurture their entrepreneurial instincts and develop fulfilling, self-led careers through the opportunities AI makes possible. And some of the most interesting applications of AI may well come from a new class of intrapreneurs.