Managing Intellectual Property in an Open Business

I went along to a great debate yesterday as part of Social Media Week London on “Open Business”.

Adroitly led by David Cushman, the panel explored a range of issues surrounding the technological, economic, cultural and organisational changes that are encouraging businesses to become more open  – and the risks and rewards thereof. The session was also captured on video.

I believe organisations form to solve problems. The problem might be commercial (a new product or service to improve people’s lives), or it might be social (a campaign for public good). Some of the most successful organisations combine both. Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever* has publicly stated that for the company he leads purpose drive profit; as a maker of foods and health & beauty products, a clear social purpose is fundamental to Unilever’s business.

For me, Unilever’s vision captures a characteristic all successful organisations share. They attract a natural community of people around them as workers, customers and partners willing to share a common set of beliefs and values. This means organisations should be inherently open because they are inherently communities. Should be.

The difficulty is, the very act of creating an organisation presents a challenge to openness: for the organisation to achieve its aims and persuade everyone to work towards a common goal it must necessarily place some parameters around the actions of the individual members.

The tension this creates can certainly inspire great creativity – and we see this every day in the great ideas created against the tightest of briefs or strictest of budgets. For businesses working to become more open and wanting to harness all the opportunities that can afford – from accelerated innovation to larger markets and greater trust – there are still some prominent issues that need to be resolved though.

In my view, one of the most immediate and pressing is Intellectual Property and specifically how it’s defined, created and managed in an open environment. It’s here that businesses embracing the principles of openness face a challenge.

In a truly open environment, where transparency, access to data and collaboration are fundamental, the ownership of the products or ideas the organisation exists to create is much harder to define. This applies to people who are participating both inside and outside the organisation, as employees, customers or other third parties.

The solution, I believe, lies in a more deft handling of IP: in the careful definition of its constituent elements and a commitment to transparency from all parties on the basis for their claim to ownership of each one.

Organisations used to collaborating with partners to develop new products will be familiar with this scenario, but in an open environment their challenge lies in scaling a partnership model to cope with a much larger and potentially less structured community.

Ultimately, I think the organisations with the clearest sense of business purpose, a firm grasp of the social environment in which they operate (as with Unilever) and an understanding of the goals they want to achieve through an open, collaborative approach stand to gain and contribute the most. With these three principles in place it becomes more possible to define the aspects of IP most valuable to them in order to take on the problems they’ve set out to solve.

*Unilever is an Edelman client.

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