INTRAPRENEURIAL NOW By: Norman Macrae
In a survey called "The coming entrepreneurial revolution" in The Economist of December 25, 1976, Norman Macrae argued that "methods of operation in business are going to change radically in the next few decades, in a direction opposite to that which most businessmen and nearly all politicians expect". The survey aroused enthusiasm and infuriation in almost equal measure, with invitations to lecture in more than 20 countries. Today Macrae updates his views on management methods that can make even lousy businesses profitable, and those that are driving tighter organizations to the wall.Big goes bust
The 1976 survey argued that the world was probably drawing to the end of the era of big business corporations, because it would soon be seen to be nonsense to have hierarchical managements sitting in skyscraping offices trying to arrange how brainworkers (who in future would be most workers) could best use their imaginations. The main increases in employment would henceforth come either in small firms or in those bigger firms that managed to split themselves into smaller and smaller profit centres which would need to become more and more entrepreneurial.
As so often with supposedly controversial journalism, this proved to be an exercise in tentatively forecasting something that had already begun to happen a decade before, although it honestly was the opposite of what was being most widely reported at the time. In 1976 the textbooks being most assiduously fed to business courses were still Ken Galbraith's. "The new industrial state" and Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber's "Le definamericain", each of which was a bible to the advocates of industrial policies then subsidising British Steels, British Leylands and Projects Concorde into growing inefficiently larger and therefore irretrievably bust. These mergers were procreated on the thesis, explicitly stated by Ken Galbraith, that markets had been replaced by planning in favor of big technostructures so that large organizations like Chrysler or United States Steel did not lose money any more. "By all but the pathologically romantic", cried Ken Galbraith in 1967, "it is now recognized that this is not the age of the small man". He believed that the most economic size for business corporations in the future could be "'very, very large".
Shortly before these two books were -written and, instantly reached the best-selling lists, precisely the opposite trends had remorselessly begun to occur.
By 1965 small workplaces were already outperforming big ones on almost every count. Even in idealistic occupations, British hospitals with under 100 beds had between one half and two thirds the sickness rates among nurses as hospitals with more than 100 beds. I got my saddest quote of the late 1970s from the manager of a huge factory in Manchuria (though he could find echoes at Detroit, London Airport, Kama River): "During the period of disruption by the gang of four many workers came only on pay-days, some carrying placards saying I was a fly on top of putrescent meat. With 10,(XX) comrades here, it was impossible to check the absenteeism, pilfering and work-dodging that went on".
The biggest world political event since the 1960s is that communist countries have proved less able than free-market ones to escape from inefficient giantism in state factories and farms, so they are all going bust. In free-market countries managers are eventually more willing to lose face than their shareholders are to lose money, but tough problems are arising as even capitalist giants slim.
Since the mid-1960s the thousand biggest firms in the United States have as a group been sensibly reducing their labour forces, and more than the whole of the 15m private-sector jobs created since then have come in smaller firms-the majority of the new extra jobs at any one time being in firms less than five years old, even though more than half of new small American firms disappear out of business in their first five years. Although survey dates are jumbled, the accompanying inadequate charts suggest the same trend is accelerating even in manufacturing across the capitalist world. The present capitalist conjuncture is therefore one where the bigger and more stable firms are running down their employment, while more than the whole of net new employment is provided by small firms which, however, frequently go bust. Ow! And some thought needs to be given to ways of combining the advantages of small firms within big ones.
Make departments minifirms
In my 1976 survey I suggested there would be two trends-in the most conventional of which, greater reliance on subcontracting, I now think I was jejune. Subcontracting works only when the big firm has very tight quality control (as have Marks and Spencer, big Japanese companies towards tiny component makers and the superbly entrepreneurial Italian textile industry, see later). Subcontracting does not work when the big firm cannot measure what quality is, so that many management consultants, public relations firms etc. are about to disappear because they are high-cost ramps.
The second system I suggested in 1976 was that dynamic corporations of the future should simultaneously be trying several alternative ways of doing things in competition within themselves, becoming what have later been called confederations of "intrapreneurs". Two key concepts for efficient businesses here. First, the right size for each profit centre or intrapreneurial group-by which I mean a group of friends working together in daily productivity hunt towards the same objective-is very small, probably not more than 10 or 11 people, however dynamic your top management. Jesus Christ tried 12, and that proved one too many. Second, firms should not pay people for attendance at the workplace but should pay competing groups for modules of work done.
Thus, if you need a typing pool, I have suggested it might be best to set up several competing groups of Typists Intrapreneurial. You would offer an index linked contract to the group for a set period, specifying the services you wanted in return for a lump-sum monthly payment. The typists would apportion the work among themselves, devise their own flexitime, choose their own lifestyles, decide whether to replace a leaver by a full-timer or part-timer or whether to do her work and keep more money per head. They could also decide whether to tender for extra paid work from outside. In offices with tomorrow's equipment, there could, see later, be a lot.
A trivial example? By comparison with the gains that can be made in other fields it is. Yet the EEC court of auditors has recently ruled that the proper output for a typist is around 24 pages a day, and was upset that in some EEC departments the average, was only 12. In The Economist on a print-day Wednesday, when we are feeling rather participatory, a top secretary will type around 60 pages. If some EEC departments went over to that pace through being Typists Intrapreneurial, the stenographers could choose to work only one day a week for the same weekly wage as now, or by slowing recruitment they could work for up to five times their existing wages for the same present attendance at the office, or they could become five times more efficient. In practice, competition would ensure a mixture of the three, and the scope in most other parts of the business and bureaucratic jungle is much vaster.
This survey will explore that wider jungle, starting from the intrapreneurial mechanisms needed to breed new projects and going on through to those needed eventually to kill outdated ones (and make it participatory fun to send them to South Korea).
About 85% of all the industrial R & D expenditure in the United States takes place in 300 large corporations. It is done very wastefully.
Towards inventors intrapreneurial
About 70,000 patents are issued in the United States each year. Of these, maybe 60,000 are never heard of again, because most are horse manure. There will be some hidden pearls among it, and more could be found if patent offices were more intrapreneurial instead of often being inefficient government filing offices, some not even properly computerized. Governments should establish competing intrapreneurial teams in patent offices, compiling competing databases.
Of the perhaps 10,000 new patents a year round the world that are used, only about 10-20 a year are for what the co-inventor of the ubiquitous integrated circuit, Mr. Jack Kilby, calls "major" inventions things that change our lives. A list of the world's major inventions over the past 50 years shows that big organizations claim to have discovered only around a third of them, and some of their claims are fibs. More than two thirds have been discovered by individuals or small businesses.
The individual inventors' list of the past 50 years turns alphabetically from air conditioning, automatic transmissions and ballpoint pens, through jet engines and penicillin, to xerography and the zipper. The big companies' list runs more predictably through crease-resistant fabrics, float glass, synthetic detergents. Note how these fit with corporate objectives; "We are a big textile or soap company, so go for something capital-intensive". "We are Pilkington's Glass, and if we can beat plate glass by developing float glass, then every motor car in the world will eventually pay us a royalty, so it is worth carrying on with research into solving the last three problems in the way of float glass even through 12 consecutive years of negative cash flow."
Nobody should underestimate the tangible and intrapreneurial excitement among a tiny group of researchers when such a big firm's opportunity presents itself. Sir Alastair Pilkington has described how his research group into float glass was kept small enough to maintain total secrecy, so that experiments had been in progress for seven years before competitors knew of them; how several of his team members, after working impossibly long hours, were carried away on stretchers suffering from heat exhaustion; how 100,000 tons of float glass were made and broken before the great day which produced the first bit they could sell. But, to quote Jack Kilby again, each invention presents a profile of opportunities and requirements, while each company has its own profile of what constitutes to it an acceptable product. The probability that these two profile, will coincide in any given case is not very high.
The result is that many big companies' brilliant researchers are, in conditions of great secrecy, in their seventh consecutive year of smashing unusable float glass.
The Pinchot proposals