In the second of two articles, Jackie Maguire advises on how to help staff to understand what these assets are and how to protect them.
In the first article on training employees to understand what can initially seem a complex area, that of intangible assets (IA), we looked at what intangible assets are and why it is necessary that employees understand this and how they all need to protect them. So now we’ll take a look at who we should train and how.
Who Should Be Coached or Trained?
In the last article we suggested that in small companies, particularly those with a technical focus, all employees need a good understanding of IA, while in larger companies training should be provided at first line manager and above, and in particular customer-facing staff. Senior managers may also need some coaching not only to understand what their staff are learning but also about their role in ensuring that IA are captured, protected and exploited.
It is often staff involved in technical roles are most at risk of “leaking” precious company assets – partly because they are often enthusiasts and like ‘talking tech’ to anyone who will listen and appears to understand – and perhaps also because they are often quite modest about their own knowledge and achievements, leading them to undervalue the years of investment in experience that has enabled something which is actually quite complex to appear relatively simple.
One of the elements that is often not considered as part of IA is the so-called ‘soft’ skills. The people element, including ‘know-how’ can be just as much as an asset as ideas or designs.
Good training programmes will explain all the essential elements of what makes up the concept of intangible assets, including these soft skills, and what represents best practice. Depending on the needs of the organisation, this could include, for example, how a partnership agreement could be written to ensure that the IA is protected. This can be especially important for suppliers in emerging markets, where trading may be unbalanced if the customer base is controlled by organisations that are more developed in IA and IP matters. Issues can arise when companies in emerging markets begin trading, as they are doing increasingly, with Western countries who have different IA standards and expectations.
There are many aspects involved with the growing internationalisation of IA, including, for example, confidentiality clauses – whether non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) are enough, for example – and the tricky act of balancing the need for security with the need for open collaboration. A proposed partnership between an established company that understands its intangible assets and how to protect them and one that is new to the game can lead to a significant unintended flow of assets from the new company to the more established one.
The undervaluing of intangible assets is one of the main reasons why leakage – of ideas and processes for example – occurs. An important management task, whatever the size of organisation, is therefore to change employees’ mindsets so that all innovation is respected and valued.
Company policy with respect to confidentiality, access to buildings, meetings with third parties and innovation disclosure all need to be publicised and practised, ensuring that all employees recognise that the risk of giving away intangible assets increases with any third-party interaction – whether formal or informal.
In the case of sales or technical staff, this may sometimes prove frustrating, as they will want to demonstrate capability on the one hand while being told they must be careful not to give ideas away for nothing on the other.
Staff who are customer-facing need to be trained to ensure that meetings with clients are well managed with a clear agenda, with limited selected attendance – on a ‘need-to-know’ basis and that even informal gatherings should be well-controlled.
The importance of good record keeping and provision of formal meeting notes should be emphasised to ensure that there is clarity about what was discussed and what actions were agreed. As part of this, any sharing of information should record who provided the information, and its content, so that history cannot be rewritten after the event. Employees should understand that this applies even to meetings of a brain-storming type or where a joint approach to innovation has been agreed.
Particularly in larger organisations, it is impossible for management to police all activities with third parties. It is therefore essential that managers can rely on their workforce to understand the importance of self-policing and the importance of IA, and this can only be done through a programme of training on what these assets are and practical advice on how best to protect them while at the same time promoting the success and innovation abilities of the company in the best light. This goes right across the company – the most junior person discussing a matter that is confidential in a public space could potentially cause significant damage, and many younger employees are not always aware of what exactly is confidential and the potential consequences of disclosure.
An IP culture is achieved primarily through education and training, with senior management acting as good role models. One way that we have seen senior management successfully raise the profile of intangible assets is to work with them on preparing divisional business plans that reference intangible asset plans for each division, which in turn support commercial objectives and the company business plan.
These plans should have clear ownership by a named individual and milestones which are visible to the people within the organisation. For example, one element of the plan might be to create and maintain a register of the key intangible assets within the division.
A small team can be formed to act as the owners, the members of which will then work to publicise the importance of intangible assets within the organisation.
Another example relates to access control which might be visible to the whole workforce, customers and supplier base, protecting key assets inside controlled boundaries. It is critical to have an IP training strategy that engages the whole workforce and emerging workplace technologies, and involving as many key people as possible in the implementation will create the self-policing environment required both to capture and retain intangible assets.
An example of a company that has embraced with enthusiasm the concept of IA training is Huduma, an Oxfordshire-based consultancy working in the area of project management. Coller IP was asked to prepare and present a bespoke training programme around intangible assets within Huduma, and how best to use these to grow the company.
The training programme included not only specialist IP advice but also more general IP training such as a workshop providing a basic introduction to Intellectual Property, to impart the importance of all employees understanding and helping to protect it, as well as a workshop dealing with contracts, and IP terms in contracts for those engaged in drawing up agreements with external suppliers, partners and customers.
All businesses need to develop leakage prevention strategies to halt the flow of value from their intangible assets. Organisations are empowered by knowledge, and understanding IA is a key part of that, whether or not a company has specialist IP advisors. At some level, the whole workforce needs to understand the importance of IA, from the directors to the most junior worker who may be in receipt of company confidential information, and even external suppliers.
Marrying the strategic direction of the company to the intangible assets and vice versa will be increasingly important as the business world becomes ever more global, and ensuring that the workforce understands the crucial importance of protecting intangible assets is a vital part of that.