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Using KM to safeguard your intellectual property

Sharing all kinds of data--documents as well as audio and video files--is common business practice these days. How do you make sure this sensitive information remains confidential?

Vital company documents are now routinely being shared via the Internet, increasing the potential for theft of intellectual property. Knowledge management systems are helping all types of companies, from software firms to traditional manufacturers, manage access to documents that are at the core of their future business plans. Companies are using KM systems to shield sensitive data from prying eyes while providing the ability to freely share the information with the appropriate people.

The applications for KM systems don't stop at simply safeguarding intellectual property. Since all types of vendors, particularly software providers and pharmaceutical firms, are applying for a record number of patents, KM plays an important role in helping to manage the process of new product development and patent applications.

"We're seeing content out there that is getting richer and richer, with audio files and video being shared by business partners via the Web," says Tim Kounadis, VP of North American marketing for Hyperwave Information Management. "That leaves a lot of information out there and exposed."

Managing and protecting all types of data is key to the future of KM systems in intellectual property management applications. Kounadis says, "The ability to have a knowledge management system support rich media is very important. This is something we didn't see that often even just a few years ago. The Internet has changed all that. Now, we take video for granted. It is all part of the mix.

"We see users like the advertising firm McCann-Erickson using collaborative business-to-business Web portals. They have clients logging onto the server with secure IDs and passwords to view creative documents, advertising copy as well as [audio] and video files."

Says Jim Hickey, VP of marketing for Authentica, "As we move from a manufacturing base, intellectual property becomes a vital asset that needs to be protected and managed. But for that intellectual property to gain value, it has to be shared. The issue is how do you protect your assets in cases where you have to share the data. How do you prevent someone from walking away with something of substantial value?"

Managing data from a central location and assigning specific privileges to each piece of information is crucial, according to Hickey. "You have to specify a usage policy for each bit of information,” he says. “Who can read it? Can they print it? Can they forward it? And how long can they have the privileges for each specific document or file?" One of the biggest challenges in managing intellectual property is to actually get the information from the minds of the inventors and other knowledge workers into files that can be shared and archived.

"If the knowledge is all in the minds of the inventors, it can no longer be protected," said Linda Fritzsche VP of marketing for Delphion . "We've seen such a growth in patenting over the past 10 years. Just a few years ago, we had only a few patents. Now companies are applying for thousands of patents a year. They need to protect patents, trademarks, copyright material, know-how and trade secrets.

"Companies have significant sums of revenue invested in intellectual capital that they need to turn into financial capital. But they can't to do that if they don't capture that knowledge at the outset. If they can't capture it, they can't leverage or protect it."

One of the areas of growth in intellectual property management is using knowledge management systems to manage the internal process of bringing an idea for a new product or other innovation from concept to fruition. Fritzsche points out that in a large company, several departments simultaneously can be developing similar ideas without the proper systems in place for sharing knowledge.

"Having separate departments working on the same or similar ideas might be desirable in some instances, but often it is not the most efficient use of company resources,” she says. “One of the big areas for knowledge management is invention disclosure and idea submission within a company. Companies are starting to focus on how to take these thousands of inventors and harness their power. Workflow, knowledge management and other technologies can facilitate extraction of this knowledge. They submit an idea, and that idea is reviewed by groups of people scrutinizing it from business, technical and legal aspects."

As the business and technology teams assess the value and merit of the idea being submitted, they must decide if they should pursue a patent, another process that needs to be managed carefully, according to Fritzsche. "Once they decide to develop an idea and apply for a patent, they have to protect it. They have to lock it down,” she says.

Sharing knowledge among departments within an organization can stave off a potential disaster when it comes time to make that information public.

"Quite often, an attorney sees a press release as it is ready to go out. The attorney says, 'Oh, my gosh. what do you mean we're announcing this?’ By sharing well in advance, those kinds of problems can be reduced,” Fritzsche says.

One of the biggest problems in managing intellectual property is getting knowledge workers to document their ideas. Kounadis says, "One of the concerns has been how to motivate people in your organization to use the knowledge management system. Not everything is going to make it into the knowledge management system, but you have to try to capture as much as you can. As older people retire, what happens to what they've learned over their 25-year careers? You just need to try to document as much as you can."

While it is important to gather as much data as possible concerning valuable intellectual property, forcing knowledge workers to fill out online forms can backfire, experts agree. "There are really two conflicting forces at work," says Scott Cooper, senior VP of knowledge management for Lotus Development. "If you make me fill in a form, it is destined to failure. A lot of organizations have tried that and failed. But if you [gather information] in an automated fashion, people are not sure they want the company crawling around their computer files."

There needs to be a balance in how the information is gathered, Cooper suggests. "What Lotus does is we'll start to mine the information you put into [public areas] and develop a profile of you, based on the things you've written and the projects you've worked on," he says.

Those user profiles are developed automatically and users are prompted to "subscribe" to various conversations and exchanges based on the profiles. "They can opt out if, for example, they know they worked on a one-time project and aren't interested in working on anything similar in the future," says Cooper. "We have a number of customers who have applied our technologies to maintaining a record of research and notes regarding new inventions and patents. It is an emerging trend. Companies are simply trying to answer the questions what do we know, and who knows it.” While sharing knowledge inside the organization is key, it is also important to gather information on patents held by other companies.

"You don't want to go through the whole process and have the patent office tell you the idea is already patented," Fritzsche says. "Even worse, you don't want to find out that the product you're developing is already patented, and your company owns the patent. There are significant sums of revenue in licensing intellectual capital. The key is to turn the intellectual capital into financial capital."

Kim Ann Zimmermann is a free-lance writer, 609-448-7509, e-mail kimzimmermann@home.com.

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