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We're in a new Dragon's Den economy

Employers need to realise this.

New Statesman
James Caan. Photogaph: Getty Images

As the new series of Dragons’ Den starts, creative ideas and business innovations are once again entering our living rooms every Sunday night. From the genius to the outright insane, budding entrepreneurs pitch for their business and battle in the den to get that all important investment. But this process is not just confined to our TV sets, it is happening all over the UK. With the government investing more money into its Start-Up Loans scheme, the prospect of starting your own business and becoming an entrepreneur is increasingly stronger.

At this year’s World Economic Forum, entrepreneurship was regarded as a major factor that will improve economic prosperity and employment figures. Economic studies from around the globe frequently link entrepreneurialism with rapid job creation, GDP growth, and long-term productivity increases. However, it is not just start-ups, new business ideas and government funding that should lead and support such initiatives; existing organisations, particularly larger global enterprises must also encourage entrepreneurial spirit within in order to succeed in today’s challenging economic and trade environment.

Currently, businesses face two dilemmas: they need to make their operations as efficient and cost-effective as possible to run better, while embracing and investing in innovative technologies and processes to drive growth and run differently. These are intrinsically linked, as savings from operational improvements are essential to fund investments in new areas. And, as leading business heads and political figures agree, it is people who will help overcome these problems and boost the economy.

But where does a business begin to tackle these challenges? Firstly, they need to carefully assess the wealth of creative talent throughout their organisation across all geographies. They can do this by having a strong performance management process in place that monitors and records employee progress, key successes and areas for improvement. Organisations can use such information to map specific skills to certain projects, while identifying top performers.

Secondly, it is about being more proactive. Promoting innovation and an entrepreneurial culture internally is imperative; from suggesting new product lines and innovative business ideas to identifying new niche markets to target or ways to foster greater teamwork, employees should be able to share and voice their opinions and work with the right people to develop them.

One way of enhancing this entrepreneurial spirit is to try and maintain a start-up culture – decentralised and proactively pushing opportunities and accountabilities further down the organisation (otherwise known as a bottom-up approach). This will help encourage new and existing talent to stay within the company long-term. If they can spot opportunities to really make a difference and be adequately rewarded then they are likely to flourish, much like the winners in the Den.

Adopting and promoting this type of culture is really the way forward. You can not manage talent centrally; you have to give employees the reins to run with specific projects and ideas. For example, businesses could create their own Dragons’ Den by running competitions and projects for individuals or teams to brainstorm new ideas and then present them to the Board. Good ideas can come from anyone within the organisation - it shouldn’t be confined to senior management. However, it is important to remember and make clear that entrepreneurship and innovation does not necessarily need to be the next big idea that will completely change the business. It can be a small incremental change, which is revolutionary and undoubtedly creative in its own right.

Ambitious individuals can also be given the chance to develop their own businesses within the larger enterprise – a model that has worked incredibly well at Cognizant. We restructured our business along three new horizons – traditional service lines, more recent service lines and entirely new areas we wanted to invest in. In forming the latter, we encouraged employees to develop business plans for new products and services, many of which we are now funding. While Cognizant’s process does not make for as good viewing as Dragons’ Den and there are not large piles of cash in the meeting room, it provides the entrepreneurs the opportunity to present ideas and secure investment. This strategy gives them the opportunity to adopt an entrepreneurial role and the freedom to launch and grow a part of the business by themselves. For employees, having this type of empowerment while benefiting from the existing support, client base and infrastructure of the wider business is hugely appealing. They can gain the satisfaction that their ideas and management processes have impacted the business in a positive way, and they have an opportunity to develop and grow their ideas themselves but do not need to put their livelihood on the line by starting an entirely new venture.

Business leaders need to create a work environment that prides itself on its people and skills and uses them to best effect to innovate, increase growth and compete in challenging economic times. If employers limit the opportunities for entrepreneurial talent, employees are likely to take their ideas elsewhere or even start their own businesses. Undoubtedly, more start-ups will boost the economy, but I believe existing companies can really contribute further by encouraging innovation within their organisations. They just need to make sure the entrepreneurial culture is shared and understood by everyone. It is a case of encouraging employees to declare "I’m in", rather than "I’m out".