Key documents describing your latest product innovation go missing, possibly stolen, and all too soon something suspiciously similar to your breakthrough product is launched by a rival. It may well sound like fiction, but the danger is far more real than many companies imagine.
Studies show that trade secrets represent two thirds of an organisation’s value. Despite the importance, research has shown that more than half of European businesses believe that protecting intellectual property and corporate secrets is less important than safeguarding customer, employee, business and financial information. Today, World Intellectual Property Day focuses on creativity and the next generation – yet such an apparently casual attitude to the management of valuable and creative new ideas could be leaving firms exposed to industrial espionage and the loss of any competitive advantage.
While industrial espionage is a term that conjures up a world of high-tech gadgets, populated by intelligence agents in trench coats and organised criminal gangs. But it actually covers a broad range of activity; not all of it obviously criminal or even malicious. All too often, companies ignore the severity of the very real threat posed, often without intention, by their employees.
In the absence of well-communicated information management and risk policies, employees will develop their own rules to govern what information they can take out of the office. The issue does not just concern the information that leaves or is taken from a company – it is very much about what information is brought in. For example, a recent Iron Mountain study revealed that over half (53 per cent) of those surveyed would jump at the chance to share company secrets from a previous job, including client data bases, company proposals and strategic plans, with their new employer.
While this may not immediately raise concerns, the survey revealed an interesting correlation between employees who were willing to share information in this way and a lack of awareness and understanding of information management policies. There is an important message here: measures put in place to protect sensitive and confidential information from leaking out of a company help foster a code of responsible conduct that encourages employees to respect the sensitivity of all the information they handle – regardless of whether it belongs to their previous or to their current employer.
Most people would draw the line at breaking and entering a company’s premises in order to deliberately remove or copy confidential information. However, if you overheard a rival’s plans in the queue for coffee at a conference, wouldn’t you choose to share that information with colleagues? Between these extremes, however, there is a grey area where employee actions are governed by their personal value system. Good information management guidelines can help employees define the underpinning values .
This World IP Day, therefore, should remind companies of the importance of intellectual property to their business. Perhaps this is the perfect time to commit to fostering a culture of information responsibility that starts at the top and filters into every level of the organisation, rewarding and reinforcing good behaviours, not only with regards to its own secrets, but to those held by other organisations as well. This will develop a culture of good information management practice across the board with little scope for confusion.
The most effective information management guidelines are not just those that physically protect information by controlling its storage, distribution, access, security and destruction; or even those that best educate employees in how information can inadvertently be revealed. They are those that encourage employees to feel a sense of pride in, personal ownership of, and responsibility for their company’s information.