Fight recession with ‘intrapreneurship’

By Dr. Thomas Tang
South China Morning Post

The ugly sight of corporate greed has arisen again recently in the form of bonus payouts to Wall Street bankers in the US despite the pain of the financial crisis that is gripping the nation. The mounting outrage at the feeble excuses put up by the banking community to support these bonuses is evidence that the public is getting fed up with the blatancy of corporate excesses.

And it is not just the bankers – the calamitous and arrogant way in which the car industry has been run over the past decade has rightly sent shivers down the spines of US taxpayers as they stand by to bail out another industry in trouble.

But before we turn our moral indignation on these sectors, we must remind ourselves that not everyone is to blame. Many junior and middle-level staff in these industries and others have made huge personal and family sacrifices to work long anti-social hours in the expectation that they will receive some reward for their efforts. Not so, it seems: top-line bosses fatten themselves on sizeable bonuses when things go well – and on equally large bonuses when things are not going so well.

Hong Kong, as a microcosm of corporate behaviour worldwide, has seen the excesses of the halcyon days but, like the rest of the world, it has not escaped the impacts of the current downturn. The closure of Hong Kong-owned factories in the Pearl River Delta is an indication of the prevailing negativity; Hong Kong’s exorbitant costs and conspicuous consumption are starting to wear thin.

What is needed now is leadership and vision to steer us out of this situation.

The government’s rescue plan to spend more on infrastructure to create jobs for Hong Kong’s builders and developers, though commendable, does not address the problem. What do we do with more bridges and roads than we need? Is Hong Kong moving from the “city of life” to a dulled version of concrete and tarmac?

A more sustainable vision is needed – one that speaks to small and medium-sized businesses and one that attends to the pressing requirements of our community. In the past, Hong Kong has actively engaged social enterprises to deliver much needed services to the community. The economic downturn, though, is hurting many of these fledgling entities. This is where business can play a role. However, social enterprises do not want charity; they need business to complement their roles.

One approach can be through the setting up of social “intraprises”. Intraprises feature entrepreneurs within organisations who, with the blessing of management, seek opportunities for their companies while using the core skills and resources of their employers as the basis for their projects.

For instance, an intrapreneur working for a logistics company would know how best to organise the supply chain for a food bank supplying the elderly. Another example could be facilities managers, who have the skills and knowledge to operate creative leisure centres and parks for the public. Using the knowledge base and technologies of the company concerned, it would be possible to create an appropriate business model that could be adopted with the right partners in the non-governmental organisation sector.

It is not too much of a stretch for the government to fund part of the costs of social intraprises – the so-called public-private partnership approach that Hong Kong has attempted in the past is one such initiative that can be drawn upon, where the public purse could supplement revenues for intrapreneurs.

The result is that the company finds a new source of income during the downturn, the community gets the benefit of much needed services and products, the intrapreneur gets to keep his or her job, and Hong Kong gets a massive shot in the arm to bolster the economy.

Dr. Thomas Tang is Executive Director at the Global Institute For Tomorrow.