Definition of bootlegging

In business, bootlegging can refer to a covert research process in which motivated individuals innovate. In most cases it is a bottom-up, unplanned activity, without the official authorisation of the management, but of benefit for the company.

No formal resources are usually allocated to it nor is it included in the department’s objectives. Usually, bootleg research is known only to the individual researcher and later to some colleagues, but not to their boss (true bootlegging). Sometimes bootleg research is unofficially acknowledged by a manager. The bootlegger is no longer on his own (conspiratorial bootlegging).

In rare cases the bootleg researcher continues bootlegging despite explicit managerial disapproval (hard-core bootlegging). Some firms, amongst them most famously 3M, have created special research schemes which encourage free research (permitted bootlegging). 

There are many other names for bootlegging research. Quite a few firms have their own specific term for it: Friday afternoon work, work behind the fume cupboard, freelance work, under-the-counter work, under-the-table work, pet project, discretionary research, intrapreneurship, freewheeling, illicit research, scrounging, renegades’ work, work in the shadows or underworld.[1]

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