This paper explains how a company can identify and categorise its inventor community. Any company that is serious about innovation should be able to identify where that innovation comes from, and who are the primary sources of its innovative ideas. There are of course many aspects to this inventor community such as who are they, how do they operate, why is this community important, how should it be managed and motivated, what environments suit them best, what is their attitude to and appreciation of intellectual property, how should this community be properly rewarded and recognised, etc. However, in this paper, we will focus specifically on defining and identifying this community, and on analyzing and rating the different sub-groups that make up this community.
Blogpost by Donal O'Connell
Chawton Innovation Services
To invent means to produce or contrive something previously unknown by the use of ingenuity or imagination. An inventor is therefore someone who invents, someone who devises some new process, appliance, machine, or article. When a new product appears, the person who first thought of it, and who first defined what the product should be, is recognised as the inventor. While many people may be involved in building the product and bringing it to market, the innovator is the person who provided the original idea that helped to define and shape the product.
Characteristics of an inventor:
For a company or organization, the inventor community is the collection of individuals who supply the innovation, creativity and ideas that help the company or organisation to grow and evolve their business and to stay competitive. There is however, not one homogenous community of inventors and it is worth sub-dividing this inventor community into several groups or categories and then rating them individually.
Some inventors are like scientists with freedom to follow their curiosity while others are more like engineers working on a problem. Some love the detail and getting their hands dirty while others are happy to work at the concept level. Some operate best within sociable groups while others are like lone wolves.
The most commonly mentioned characteristics of an inventive person include people with a broad view, a holistic perspective, a tendency to 'think outside the box' and who will likely use abstract and conceptual thinking in tasks or projects. They will almost certainly be persistent, willing to learn and show curiosity. They can also be very dedicated and motivated, while on the other hand, showing streaks of rebelliousness. They will often times prove to be ‘serial networkers’ as well.
Inventiveness is not the sole preserve of one function:
In the past, most companies and organisation have tended to focus on getting inventive ideas from their internal inventor community and in particular, from those with a track record of submitting ideas and inventions, the so-called ‘serial’ inventors. Most have also tended to focus on those working in the R&D area of the company and have perhaps neglected those in other disciplines such as manufacturing, service & repair, logistics & distribution and marketing amongst others. Most have also tended to neglect inventors based outside the company or organisation. It is therefore important to recognise that inventive ideas may come from many sources.
Slicing and dicing the inventor community:
There are a variety of ways to 'slice and dice' this inventor community, for example by focusing on the output from this community.
By volume of inventive ideas:
• ‘Serial’ inventors (the people who come up with good inventive ideas on a regular basis)
• Inventors in the company or organisation who have only submitted one or two inventions in the past
• Employees who have never submitted an invention or an idea
The term serial inventor refers to those who regularly generate good quality inventive ideas, such as your top inventors. They have a proven track record and they are at ease working in this mode. This group is a critical group as far as the company or organisation is concerned as they not only supply critical raw material but they may help to mentor and coach others.
As stated above, inventiveness is not the sole preserve of research and development. There is also value in analysing the inventor community in terms of their core function or activity
• Employees working on leading edge technology, products and services within your company
• Employees working in production and manufacturing roles
• Employees who work in customer-facing roles or who are responsible for managing partners and suppliers
• Employees working in marketing and communication roles
Traditionally inventions come from within R&D but the inventor community is much broader than this and increasingly, it includes people spread throughout the company. People working in those different parts of the company will have different perspectives on how a product is built and used, and can bring very different ideas on how to improve an existing product or on what new products should be developed.
Companies also need to look beyond their internal organizations. Today, companies cannot survive in isolation. They need to cooperate and collaborate with other companies, universities and external individuals. All these different people must also be recognised as potentially belonging to your inventor community.
• Component suppliers, parts vendors, application developers and content providers, all outside your company but with links and relationships to it
• Partners with whom you may jointly design and develop products and/or services
• Customers who purchase your products and/or services
• End-users of your products and/or services
• Unsolicited inventive ideas received from the general public
Dealing with an external inventor is always more complex compared to dealing with an internal inventor. In the perfect world, you would like to pay as little as possible for the external inventor’s idea, while obtaining the best indemnification possible, full ownership of any relevant patents, and broad and free licenses for any background related intellectual property. The external inventor would get nothing! However, in the real world, it does not work like that and a win-win solution has to be found.
It is obvious that some sub-groups are well defined, whereas others are somewhat vague and there is often overlap between some of the segments or categories listed above. It should not be a concern that some of the sub-groups or categories listed have not historically submitted inventive ideas. Just because they have not done so in the past, does not mean that they may not unilaterally do so, or be approached to do so, in the future.
Rating these sub-groups:
I mentioned above about rating these sub-groups and although it may not be possible do this in a formal manner, it is clear that a company or organisation may need to distinguish between those sub-groups which are most likely to contribute good quality inventive ideas in terms of how they spend their valuable time and energy.
One ways to rate each sub-group or category is as follows:
• Their skill and competency level
• The volume of inventive ideas they submit
• The quality of these inventive ideas
• The completeness of these inventive ideas
• The ease of linking and communicating with them
• They extent to which they ‘push’ their inventive ideas or the extent to which the company or organisation ‘pulls’ the inventive idea from the inventor
• The directness of the inventive ideas flowing to the company or organisation from the inventor, i.e. direct from inventor or via some other route
Innovative ideas can take many forms:
Another important way to consider rating the inventor is by matching the inventor to the form of innovation that is being submitted. Innovative ideas can take many forms. It can be disruptive, transformative or incremental in nature. Innovation can take place in what is being offered, to whom it is being offered, in how things are done or in where things are done. It may impact the product, the service, the process or the business model, so you may wish to consider incorporating the nature of the innovative idea when rating the inventor.
Just as any traditional factory needs to understand and appreciate the source, volume, quality and logistics of the raw materials and product components being supplied into their factory, the very same applies to the 'raw material' of innovative ideas.
PULL versus PUSH modes:
The most important source of 'inventive ideas' raw material is the inventor community and so, improving the quantity and quality of ideas that are coming from this community should be a role of the highest priority.
Switching from a passive mode to an active mode, or in other words, actively seeking out new sources of inventive ideas, also deserves some consideration. How should you approach this task and how should it be decided whether the efforts needed for this mode of operation will produce adequate results? How frequently should this task be performed? In recent times there clearly is a trend taking place whereby companies and organisation are switching from the passive ‘PUSH’ mode, where you wait for invention ideas to be submitted, to the more active ‘PULL’ mode, where you seek out inventions in key technology areas and from leading edge research and technology and product programs, but at the same time remain ready and willing to handle ‘out of the box’ ideas from left field.
There is also a trend taking place whereby IP experts are working together with the general legal community, as well as the sourcing and purchasing experts within companies, in order to ensure that intellectual property terms and conditions are properly incorporated into contracts with suppliers, vendors and university 'partners'. This includes areas such as idea generation and invention harvesting.
PULL mode activities may include such things as conducting invention workshops on specific areas of interest, actively working with lead technology projects to harvest inventions, working closely with the top inventors and establishing invention targets together with business and technology management.
You should strive to really know and understand your inventor community, and how they see intellectual property and patenting, as this will enable you to amend or tune activities in order to reach the desired end result. If you are aware of factors which work against your patenting goals and targets, then there is a need to develop ways of dealing with and controlling these issues.
It is important to step into the shoes of the inventor and in particular, understand how they work and think, plus how they may perceive the company and intellectual property in general, given the critical links between inventive ideas and intellectual property.
About the author
Donal O'Connell is the Managing Director of Chawton Innovation Services. His company offers consultancy in the areas of innovation and intellectual property management. He has had a long career at Nokia for 21 years as a VP of R&D and a Director of IP at Nokia and wide experience in the wireless telecoms industry, having worked for periods in The Netherlands, UK, USA, Finland, and HK. His previous books are “Inside the Patent Factory” and “Harvesting External Innovation”.
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