In my prior column, I wrote how some businesses in Canada are failing to protect and extract value from the intellectual property they are generating. In fact, it’s possible that many organizations in Canada are simply not aware that they are generating intellectual property. So how can an organization improve and profit from innovation in the workplace?
While it may sound trite, knowledge is power. An organization must first understand whether it is actually generating intellectual property, so a basic understanding of the different forms of IP is essential. While I’ve previously focused primarily on patents that protect scientific innovations, there are many other forms of intellectual property. First, any business selling a product or service should consider protecting their brand with a registered trademark. Trademarks can be extremely valuable and an important way to set yourself apart from competitors. Next, businesses not directly engaged in technological research and innovation may not realize that internal processes and systems, technical information and know-how, as well as databases, can have significant value providing a competitive edge and could be protected as trade secrets. An organization may not recognize the value in this until a key employee leaves, taking with him or her valuable knowledge that should have remained with the company.
Once an organization has an understanding of what can be protected, the question then becomes how to develop the infrastructure whereby innovations are identified and subsequently protected. The line from innovations developed on the shop floor to an issued patent, for example, is not exactly straight. There are a myriad of reasons why an invention may not make it off the shop floor, including disengaged employees or an absence of managerial infrastructure. An organization should therefore empower and educate its employees with respect to innovation and the corresponding intellectual property they may be generating. Organizations with strong innovation cultures reward employees who identify and bring forward inventions to the appropriate people or committee. For example, employees can be financially rewarded in a step-wise fashion for identifying an invention, when a patent application is subsequently filed and when the patent is eventually issued.
To profit from innovations, organizations must have the appropriate infrastructure in place such that potential innovations can be identified and evaluated. Ideas should be measured against a company’s goals so as not to waste precious resources. Furthermore it’s important to recognize from the outset that not every innovation is worthy of protection. This should all be part of the evaluation process that would allow the most potentially valuable innovations to move forward. A company’s long-term focus may change and thus previous decisions should be regularly reviewed to ensure consistency with the organization’s current goals.
Businesses are always striving to improve by lowering costs or increasing customer satisfaction. In many cases, these improvements are the result of innovations over a prior iteration of a product or service, which can provide a competitive edge. For example, one could be forgiven for thinking that the pasta industry would not actually be a hotbed of innovation. However, a quick search of the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s database for the term “pasta” in the title alone shows more than 400 issued patents, such as “Nutritionally Enhanced Pasta.” Any of these patents could provide a significant and valuable competitive edge. Whether innovations are intended or serendipitous, businesses should have the appropriate infrastructure in place to ensure that value doesn’t slip through their fingers.