Culture and intellectual property

The disrupted workplace and intellectual property

Australia Publication April 2021

“Culture” is one of those words which, in its application to the operations of a business, can conceal more than it reveals. It is easy to say, but not easy to define and not so easy to instil. Properly understood “culture” in this context refers to the instinctive or reflexive decisions of employees: what they are disposed to do or not do. A good culture is one where the staff are disposed to act in ways that align with the interests of the business, avoiding things which cause detriment to the business or which cause loss/liability. Good culture turns on an organisation’s values and employee behaviours.

In relation to the intellectual property (IP) of a business, a good culture is one where employees inherently recognise the value of the IP and the need to protect/maintain it. This matters as much in relation to the IP of an employee’s home business as it does in relation to the IP of a third party. In your organisation, do the values of the company and the behaviours of your employees create this good culture in relation to your IP?

How can “good culture” at this level be created and maintained? The following elements are crucial:

  • Although good culture manifests itself through the positive actions of employees taken reflexively or instinctively rather than primarily in response to commands or edicts, there must be a baseline set of clear rules and requirements that employees understand from the outset. In practice this means that plain English policy statements of the “rules” for creating and legitimately using IP must exist and be visible to staff.

  • So that the employees can “live” these rules there needs to be training given around them. But the training should not consist merely of restatements of these rules. There needs to be a “building out” with training that enables the employee to understand how the rules are to be applied. The training should enable the employee’s own interests to be aligned with the organisation’s need for the rules to be followed. This will create those reflexive and instinctive good behaviours.

  • Importantly, training should connect with the position/role of the employee and view the world from the employee’s perspective. The information should extend to the ways in which IP enables the business to flourish and, with it, the opportunities for the employee’s own interests to be met through career advancement, more security or satisfaction in work and so on. There is also the need to explain to employees the risks created by even inadvertent misuse of third party IP. Put simply, create an understanding that the proper protection and promotion of IP is good for the employee and good for the organisation.

  • Role model from the top. Higher management needs to be seen to act in accordance with the rules and the precepts underlying the training. There must be no “gap” which could allow the development of cynicism or disengagement amongst other employees.

  • Regular culture health checks or assessments. Test whether fidelity to the culture is being kept up.

The second item is the area where things most usually fall down. Good ‘rules’ that sit on a shelf can only go so far. How your employees understand those rules and what constitutes useful training is key. Training can so often fall victim to being the subject of fairly fixed ideas, given in circumstances of time pressure and where is an abiding suspicion in organisations against giving up more information than is necessary according to the narrowly defined objectives of the training.

We want organisations to challenge that orthodoxy. We encourage you to convey through training a narrative that covers the practical circumstances of the employee in relation to the creation and/or protection of IP and which builds outwards from the rules towards encouraging particular feelings about IP as an asset of a business, be that their business, or someone else’s. Doing so will ensure that the day-to-day actions by the employees that are faithful to the employer’s interests in the area of IP.

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