THE CONCEPT OF KNOWLEDGE TRANSFER

BDI Logo3British Design Innovation (BDI) represents many of the leading industrial designers, service designers and innovation professionals in the UK. Among other initiatives, BDI developed the Open Innovation Challenge™ (OIC), an innovation process model utilised to support knowledge-based propositions originating in the commercial design sector which contain inherent value in both hard and soft IP. OIC not only supports designers’ trading activities with corporate brand owners seeking external innovation, but also reinforces the status and differentiation of their propositions from crowd-sourced ideas.

It was back in 2004 that BDI introduced the concept of Knowledge Transfer to its members and those seeking to engage with them, highlighting the crucial role it plays in professional practice and commercial transactions. The knowledge transfer principle now regularly crops up in creative industry initiatives and communications, and paid-to-think design firms are grasping the value of knowledge as a trading commodity. However, brand owners seeking to bring external innovation into their businesses are still struggling with the concept of paying for it, or separating knowledge- and solution-based propositions from those that are simply ideas unsupported by in-depth knowledge or know-how.

Unfortunately, in order to communicate the value of a proposition based on customer- and sector-led knowledge and know-how, it is often necessary to demonstrate or pass on a good deal of the knowledge supporting it. Even under stringent conditions of commercial confidentiality there exist otherwise intelligent individuals who believe it is fair to claim someone else’s knowledge and rationale as their own, and utilise it to produce very similar – and sometimes identical – propositions under their own label.

If the text were a story and the product a book, such activities would be denounced as plagiarism in the publishing world, and source credits would be a minimum requirement in the digital and visual industries if copyright infringement claims were to be avoided. However, innovations translated into new market applications for products and services are invariably knowledge- and research-based. Such pre-patent concepts (including unprotected designs, 3D applications, service design, business models and processes) are consistently purloined by others on the basis that ideas cannot be protected. But these are not merely unsubstantiated ideas – they are tradable knowledge-based solutions developed by professionals with know-how. Under these circumstances, utilising and commercialising someone else’s work is surely knowledge theft?

It is accepted that knowledge transfer has a tradable value. Universities consistently trade and transfer knowledge commercially with industry (an activity encouraged, promoted and funded by the government). Knowledge-based professional Originators are no different to universities apart for the fact that they have the know-how to take knowledge a step further and translate it into market applications in the form of user-led products, services and propositions.

Good business ethics, a strong personal morality and best professional practices alone cannot protect professional Originators (who include scientists and industrial designers) from those with few qualms about replicating others’ work, for recent history has shown that such attributes do not always reside in rogue individuals employed by commercial businesses. And plagiaristic activity – intentional or otherwise – is rife within a public sector that appears to predominantly employ individuals of high intelligence but little or no commercial experience. Many naively believe that the words ‘public domain’ mean ‘free to all’. They don’t.

In a global market where the internet and ‘crowd power’ now hold sway, the existing copyright system is a long way away from providing the protection required to stimulate an open innovation society. Current IPR protection is incapable of drawing a distinction between undefined early-stage ideas on the one hand, and fully-rationalised knowledge- and solution-based propositions on the other. We need a new IPR category in order to protect the latter.

In innovation, all skills have a value. Don’t they…?.

If our society were solely populated by creative Originators with equal skill sets and the money to bring new innovations, services, products or propositions to market, nobody would need partners and everybody could more easily protect their ideas, knowledge, know-how and commercial positions. In the real world, of course, skilled Originators are a minority who need route-to-market partners to assist in the commercialisation of their work. (We at BDI call this a ‘division of labour’ model, based on the precept that no product, service, process or proposition ever comes to market without the shared expertise of several key parties.)

So why do some with route-to-market skills find it acceptable to exploit the Originator before the idea, and expend so much time and money doing so at the risk of their reputations? Such futile behaviour blocks true innovation because professional ‘ideapreneurs’ – the innovators, originators and creative businesses – are at the mercy of those who are not themselves innovative.

I mentioned knowledge theft earlier. This is a difficult subject to conjure with. The majority approach has arguably been to give knowledge away for free in order to demonstrate expertise, in exchange for professional status, commercial engagement or public relations coverage. However, it becomes an issue when knowledge is used to support the rationale, narrative and validation of an innovative concept (be it a product, service or business proposition), and that knowledge is then ‘lifted’ and applied to the commercial benefit of another individual or organisation – who rarely attribute source credits and all too often repackage it as their organisations’ internal creation.

The arguments for such knowledge theft invariably include the line: “Well, ideas can’t be protected, so if they’re presented in the course of seeking commercial engagement they’re fair game!” But continuing along such a dismal path can only result in the existing barriers to innovation between Originators, route-to-market partners and industry becoming even more difficult to break down.

In order to dismantle these barriers, knowledge and know-how value needs to be addressed in the paid-to-think marketplace – in other words, by those who have proved their value and earn their living as professional Originators. But it also needs to be supported by a new trading model (and IPR system) that enables the appropriate trading of fully-rationalised knowledge- and solution-based propositions between Originators and route-to-market exploiters, to their mutual benefit. Which ultimately benefits the customer and consumer, of course.

Knowledge alone has little value unless it can be translated into innovative products, services and propositions by those with the know-how and skills to do so. When they do, professional Originators should not be continually exploited and undermined – and yes, cheated – out of commercial benefit. Such behaviour can only stifle innovation and crush the spirit of the very people the government professes to support in an attempt to turn the UK economy around.

If the powers that be, from the government and the Intellectual Property Office on down, really want to build a strong knowledge economy, they need to take these issues on board and find the ways and means of resolving them.

© Maxine J Horn 2010. All rights reserved.

MaxineJHorn_bw1Maxine Horn is CEO of British Design Innovation and lead author of Delivering the Innovation Dream: The BDI Report, delivered to HM Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills on 18 March 2009.

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