Where some see only gloom right now, entrepreneurs see opportunity. As the risk averse withdraw, braver business leaders will step forward. An enthusiastic special report in The Economist this month anticipates a new golden age for entrepreneurship, declaring it an idea whose time has come. Its “triumph” is already assured. But when chief executives and other senior managers look within their organisations, do they see a lot of (frustrated) entrepreneurs waiting eagerly to put ideas forward? Somehow I doubt it. Even if they do, how comfortable are business leaders with the idea of encouraging, still less investing in, new ventures at a time like this?
“Companies tend to view their entrepreneurs with ambivalence,” says Julian Birkinshaw, professor of strategic and international management at London Business School. “In principle, there is enormous enthusiasm for them. In practice, there can also be great suspicion. People wonder whether there is empire building going on, or if the suggested ideas are really all a bit self-aggrandising. In the worst case there may be fears that something outright fraudulent is being done.”
In his 2003 book, Inventuring, Prof Birkinshaw explained what companies had to gain by encouraging entrepreneurial activity internally. He offered this clever (if now slightly dated) example: think of an executive arriving at Heathrow airport on a Virgin Atlantic flight. On the Heathrow Express train into town, he calls his office on an Ericsson phone. Then, on his IBM laptop, he does some shopping at Tesco.com, which he pays for with an Egg credit card.
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