Thursday, November 15, 2007

The IP Audit: Driving by the Rear-View Mirror

by Ron Carson
Regional Sales Director
Innovation Asset Group, Inc.

Previous posts have discussed the dichotomy between the importance of intellectual property (i.e. IP is responsible for >80% of the value of companies) and the degree to which it is mis-managed (70% of execs believe it is managed as a legal task, as opposed to a business asset.) This post is about what I see as a major disconnect between day-to-day IP management and the IP audit.

According to the literature I’ve read, an IP audit can be initiated for any number of reasons. The common theme in all of these reasons is that the IP audit is initiated in response to an event that requires the company to REALLY know what is going on with its IP – as though IP didn’t matter all that much before.

Unfortunately, the IP audit will tell companies about mistakes they’ve already made, or opportunities they’ve already missed, but it won’t necessarily prevent them from making mistakes in the first place.

Perhaps I’m biased because I’m a software vendor, but I suggest that the level of detail required in an IP audit represents the level of detail companies should have in their day-to-day IP management system. That’s not to say that every minute data point in an audit would need to be revisited on a daily basis, but the IP management system should capture the information through the normal course of business that would be required in an audit.

Companies spend millions of dollars tracking and managing their tangible assets: inventory, real estate, machinery, computers, etc – millions of dollars to manage just 15% of their corporate value. In reality, intangible assets have to be identified, protected and maintained as well. In fact, I would argue that it is more important to take these measures with intangible assets as they account for ~85% of a company’s value.

Intellectual property has business implications at many points across the enterprise, and each of these having a role to play in its management – from targeted innovation in research and development to licensing opportunities in business development to cost accounting and royalty tracking by business units. Traditional docketing systems, departmental stop-gap spreadsheets & databases to not address these interdependencies and responsibilities sufficiently.

Docketing systems are good at helping companies to ensure that they take appropriate actions by required dates. They do not determine whether these actions are optimal for the business. For example, a company with hundreds of patents could be wasting thousands of dollars annually by maintaining patents that it does not use in its core business – but the docketing system does not care.

Spreadsheets are often used to try to make up for shortcomings in the functionality of docketing systems. Companies use them to try to track additional information about intellectual property. However, spreadsheets are error prone, difficult to share and when used in conjunction with docketing systems they can create a need for duplicate data entry. Duplicate data entry increases the opportunity for errors. Speaking of errors, a study quoted in CIO Magazine found that on average, four out of five spreadsheets contained errors. The article went on to describe a number of material spreadsheet blunders that cost the respective companies tens of millions of dollars.

Shared Directories
Shared directories on network servers are sometimes used in an attempt to overcome the inability of spreadsheets to be shared easily. Unfortunately, information kept in a shared directory requires a lot of maintenance in order to ensure that the data is current, and version control becomes a new problem. Although shared directories may be a convenient place to dump bits of information, they are severely limited when it comes to handling key relationships between IP assets and the business.

Standalone Databases
Some companies have tried database programs in an attempt to improve on the limitations of spreadsheets and shared directories. However, these databases are not geared towards sharing data with a distributed workforce. They require extensive IT resources and custom programming, and are expensive to modify as the business changes and grows.

None of the approaches or any combination of the tools described here suffices for the meaningful implementation of strategic IP management. Still, companies try to make them work: many different spreadsheets, databases and directories are deployed in different areas of the company in an attempt to address needs at departmental level. This creates a nightmare scenario of disparate data silos, each with its own risks of data inaccuracies and none with the complete business-oriented picture of the company’s IP assets.

So how do companies address this nightmare scenario of disparate data silos, each with a small piece of the overall IP picture? If they don’t have an IP management system in place already, many companies turn to the IP audit.

Depending on circumstances, and IP audit can have a wide range of meanings. Generally speaking, an IP audit is an inspection of the IP owned, used or acquired by a business as well as a review of its management, maintenance, exploitation and enforcement.

Seems reasonable…

Unfortunately, the IP audit is like driving a car forward using only the rear view mirror. You’ll find out about opportunities after you’ve already missed them and problems after you’ve already hit them.

What if the IP audit was not a one-off project in a reactive mode to some external event, opportunity or market shift? What if the rigor and thoroughness of the IP audit was captured during the course of business as part of day to day IP management operations? Isn’t that the way most other critical business functions (such as finance, accounting, sales, production, logistics, etc) operate? Why do most companies relegate the management of their most strategic assets to docketing systems and spreadsheets?

The management of IP should be an ongoing practice and should become part of the corporate fabric. The next time your company goes through an IP audit, recognize that you have just completed the necessary data gathering to begin the implementation of an IP management system. The question is: will your company leave the results of the audit in binder on a bookshelf, or will you use it to begin to strategically manage the most valuable asset your company owns?

(For more information about strategic IP management systems, visit our website at

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