Invention and Innovation

Is pulling your organization’s IP like pulling teeth?

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By Riyon Harding, IBM Executive IP Strategist
Manny W. Schecter Chief Patent Counsel for IBM Corporation
Mark Bell, IBM senior IP Strategist

Many organizations suffer from lack of time and resources to get anything other than the supercritical accomplished – and often through super hero efforts at that. With the constant pressures to do more with less, who has time to write down a quick summary about an improvement to a customer design that shaved a week off the schedule or a tweak to a model that generated 10% more accurate simulation results?

What’s more, who even recognizes the achievement as being valuable intellectual property? With so much focus on the end result the critical know how responsible for getting that result goes undocumented, unprotected and unvalued; putting freedom to operate and the ability to keep IP out of the hands of competitors at serious risk.

So how can one conquer the constant IP pull battle and create a self-sustaining, IP push culture of innovation given the intense pressures? Let’s first take a look at various innovation-pulling initiatives and point out what you have probably already seen go wrong when used in isolation.

1. Incentives

Incentives seem to come up as a method of getting blood out of stones. Although in many cases incentives may help for a short time (either intrinsic or extrinsic), things quickly return to status quo. The same responsible employees bound by their duty to disclose IP (and know how to recognize it and what to do with it at that point) continue to do so, the rest go back to fighting the fires that encompass their day jobs. Incentives programs certainly can be good for both morale and promoting good IP disclosure practices, but for them to become a driving force to change the culture will require a sustained and focused effort that may be difficult for the very reasons we discussed.

2. Quotas:

How about forcing already over-loaded workers to promise to submit or have their employees submit a certain number of disclosures as potentially valuable IP? Certainly yields the result of getting the bare minimum number to fill a quota, at the last minute and of relatively low quality. Laws of statistics argue that there may still be valuable IP amongst the chaff, but how much of it was lost from the beginning of the year when the pressure wasn’t focused on getting disclosures submitted?

2. Invention Miners:

Perhaps a special ops task force that constantly mines for IP throughout the organization, like a robotic vacuum cleaner sucking ideas out of people’s heads? Probably more effective than the first two, but now you’re going to have to get additional precious and rare requisitions that are slated for higher priority (according to a likely non-IP centric executive team). Hiring a lower cost consulting firm is an option, however the business expertise lies within your own organization and would likely require some internal resources to direct the ongoing effort – at least in the short term.

3. Innovation Lab:

What about a dedicated “innovation lab” where employees can rotate through on a part-time or full-time basis? We’ve seen significant success for organizations that set up a dedicated workspace that promotes creativity and collaboration. The drawback is, of course, that you are only receiving ideas from a small sub-set of the organization and although the ideas may be important forward thinking solutions there may be much more critical-to-the-business-today IP that is not being captured.

4. Innovation Day

Another tack may be to host an “innovation day” at the office. A message from the executive team about the importance of IP, some encouraging insights from Inventors (guests or otherwise), a word about the submission process and some food might go a long way to inspire creativity, spread the word, help employees connect with others and fill a few of the invention coffers. Although the effects may not be long lasting it might be sufficient to host something similar once or twice a year to keep getting the message across and a few inventions in the door. The trick will be to make it sincere and respected… not hokey.

5. Enlist OC:

Outside counsel can be a valuable partner resource to help with invention mining as well. If you have a good OC they should be able to assist with invention mining efforts directly with your teams. Being part of the process enables them to have a clear understanding of the inventions which typically leads to quality applications that can be filed quickly after the session. They may be expensive; however, many enjoy invention mining and may provide a discount for such services, especially if you want to try a few “pilots”. Invite them to the innovation fair while you’re at it and have them meet with some of the employees directly.

6. IP Champions:

Volunteer armies of patent or IP champions have been deployed in some organizations to instill innovation awareness, provide training and do some invention mining amongst their teams. While this can be an incredibly effective grass roots effort it takes very special individuals with a passion for IP to make it work. Most volunteers will quickly go back to their day jobs after a minimal amount of effort (hey – isn’t that what we all do?).

The truth is that the problem doesn’t lay with the innovation programs themselves, and it’s certainly not with the employees, but rather getting the right mix of programs at the right time to the right people. Easier said than done, but certainly doable. Just look at IBM’s proven patent leadership and resounding culture of innovation, which stem from just the right concoction of invention capture initiatives- carefully managed and always flexible.

Although we have yet to find the silver bullet cure for making the process of pulling IP from the organization completely pain free – using a mix of each of the invention cultivation tools at various points in the R&D cycle and calendar year coupled with careful monitoring of changes to the business and its IP needs should help to build an internally sustainable culture of innovation that creates much more push and requires much less pull. The mix of push and pull initiatives helps ensure you’re covering all your bases. At any given moment employees are working in various stages of a project, with different teams and often on very different tasks. So what works for some projects/employees might not work as well for others. At the very least your organization should be better equipped to capture critical IP, mitigate damaging risks of IP loss and/or freedom to operate, without breaking the bank.

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