Can open innovation offer an alternative to patent disputes?

2012 saw a string of patent wars between technology innovators with Apple and Samsung squaring up to protect their intellectual property (IP)

As a business technologist it frustrates me that 2012 saw a string of headlines about "patent wars" between some of the world’s major technology innovators, writes John Hall. Apple and Samsung, in particular, went toe to toe in an attempt to protect their intellectual property (IP). It often seems that the real winners in such fights are the lawyers and the struggle to guard innovative developments only leads to added inertia for future innovation.

The benefits of shared thinking

However, perhaps there is light at the end of the tunnel, as an emerging breed of developers and engineers embrace a more collaborative working style, supported by the growth of public and private digital communities or social networks. This new way of working, often referred to as open innovation, is being increasingly used in the technology and creative industries to share thinking with parties that might otherwise be considered competitors and, as a result, generate new sources of economic value.

Generation Y driving collaboration

Perhaps the biggest single driver of this change is the rise of certain demographics. The so-called "Generation Y" of digital natives has little issue with sharing information and engaging in communities with which they only have virtual links. Collaborating as groups of individuals with the same interest in solving shared problems is their natural behaviour. As these digital natives move into academia and the workforce, they bring the culture of interaction and sharing acquired through the use of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

We are learning to trust sharing and networking as something that can make our lives and intellectual experience richer.

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Obviously, managing open innovation will create new challenges. It is a balance between risk and reward. To be really effective in a business context requires clear processes that encourage trusted relationships between previously unconnected but like-minded parties. Organisations that can overcome these hurdles and adopt either internal or external open innovation, can tap into skills and different perspectives from an increasingly diverse and rich pool of talent and ideas. 

Shortening product lifecycles

In today’s environment of ever-shortening product lifecycles it makes sense, in terms of economic sustainability, for companies of all sizes to engage in more collaboration as a means of sharing at least some of their R&D costs. For such collaboration to be effective, companies need to decide what technology is core and represents IP to be guarded, and what they are willing to open up and collaborate with others on. The opportunity to eliminate duplication of effort and spend in multiple areas of development is huge and will have tangible benefits for all of us.

Round silicon roundabout

Open Innovation is happening right now. You only have to look at how technology firms are working together in areas such as London’s Silicon Roundabout to see it in practice. Open innovation brokerage companies, such as TopCoder and Innocentive, are building a new type of business through innovation brokering that brings like-minded parties together. And it’s not just start-up or smaller organisations that are adopting this model, large multi-nationals, such as Philips and Procter and Gamble, have also seen significant benefits from open innovation.

Rapid innovation 

I firmly believe that, with the pace of technological change increasing exponentially, enterprises can no longer constrain themselves by their own capabilities if they want to remain competitive. The pace of innovation is too rapid and the world is too interconnected. In my experience there is almost always someone else who can offer more creative ideas, deeper insight or greater skill to support product or service innovation. You are missing potential if you don’t find a way to access such capability. 

It will be those who are bold enough to embrace the opportunities offered by open innovation that will reap the rewards, while companies that hang on to the old style of adversarial confrontation and litigation will find themselves increasingly out in the cold. If only we could spend as much effort and money in finding ways to appropriately and effectively share our ideas rather than guard them, I believe that what was previously seen as competition can be turned into “win-win” collaboration.

John Hall is head of strategy and portfolio at Atos



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