The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),
adopted in 2015, frame the agenda of international and national activities and
engagement. International organisations (IOs) and multinational enterprises are
no exception. Yet these strong institutions experience difficulties to reform
or revitalize to creatively contribute to the SDGs (1). A solution is to foster
innovation through intrapreneurship. In brief, intrapreneurship is entrepreneurship
within a large organisation. With the rise of environmental and social
awareness, this concept was framed through the perspective of sustainability
and is sometimes referred as social intrapreneurship (3). But the idea remains
the same for both IOs and companies: encouraging innovation and creativity
inside established organisations to deliver positive impacts. Hence, it is a powerful
tool for the SDGs.
The business case for international organisations
IOs are on the front line in implementing
initiatives to meet the SDGs, but some of them tend to be very bureaucratic and
heavy to transform, when the SDGs require to be dynamic and change old ways of
doing things. A good example is the e-card system of the International
Organisation on Migration (IOM), which shifted from giving physical goods to
give cash to allow migrants to buy their own goods. This change helped the IOM
to get a better understanding of the needs of the migrants based on data
collected through the e-card system, to bring more transparency and reduce delivery
time for migrants (1). Technology evolution is an amazing opportunity for IOs
to increase their impacts. Letting inside innovator make incremental changes to
existing initiatives through intrapreneurship is a more effective way to transform
organisations without the need of heavy procedures. However, enabling
conditions are needed. Collaboration and partnerships with colleagues, field
staff and companies are essential to either get an understanding of the
situation or get the technology. In the case of the IOM, they partnered with
Red Rose One Solution which permitted the data collection through their
technology as well as vendors willing to install the app to read the e-card
(1). A strong project owner and buy-in from the executive level are required too.
In some cases, lack of support from managers have jeopardized initiatives
whereas in others, executive encouragement has triggered creative thinking
The business case for multinational companies
Multinational companies have a greater role to
play in meeting the SDGs, especially in terms of funding. There is a growing
awareness that the private sector must contribute to social and ecological positive
impact. Moreover, there is a business rationale to do so. According to the
World Economic Forum, in 2017, the benefit of having a positive impact is
estimated to be US$ 12 trillion (2). Companies may not know how to contribute and
this is where intrapreneurship comes into play. The purpose of business
innovation is to bring improvement and/or open new commercial opportunities (4),
but this can be done with sustainability in mind. A concrete example is Vodafone’s
mobile banking system in Kenya, a country with 60% of people having a mobile
phone, but only 20% having access to banking services. Now, Vodafone reached a
million users (2). As for IOs, partnerships are key to get a better
understanding of the situation and some level of management support is
critical. In both cases, intrapreneurs need to prove that the initiative will
bring higher profits/impacts in a shorter time than usual. In other terms, they
should prepare a business model and case to gain support from line leaders, so
along to their social awareness, intrapreneurs must develop good communication
skills and a good understanding of their project’s implications. A big
difference between IOs’ and corporate intrapreneurships is, in the case of the
second, whether the initiative falls into the philanthropy department or is part
of the standard business activities. One cannot go without the other: if the
focus is on the business side, intrapreneurs may lose their social partners,
and if it is on philanthropy, it may be difficult to get funds and/or support internally
To conclude, intrapreneurship is an important and effective tool to create innovative and impactful initiatives aligned with the SDGs. It is a great opportunity for both IOs and companies, and as the example of the IOM has showed, why not combine both, taking advantage of both expertise.
(1) Ambos Tina C., Tatarinov Katherine et al.,
2019, Initiatives with impact: Unleashing
bottom-up innovation in international organizations, GSEM University of
Geneva, World Economic Forum, available here.
Tim, 2017, The Business case for social
entrepreneurship, LinkedIn, available here.
Thompson Toby, 2010, Social
intrapreneurship: The Yunus inside, Cranfield University, available here.
Margaret, 2017, Business innovation,
TechTarget, available here.
2019, Intrapreneurship: The art of the
(im)possible, Barclays, available here.
Tatarinov Katherine, 2019, How innovation
from within is transforming international organisations as well as lives,
World Economic Forum, available here.
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