Many businesses fear collaboration. Despite any good will and/or interest in it managers, in particular in small to medium sized businesses, are often confronted with the risk of being taken advantage of by seemingly good collaborating partners. An interesting development in this regard is the recent publication of the IP Toolkit for Collaboration by the Federal Department of Industry and Science. This toolkit includes a set of ‘guidelines’ that largely responds to long standing obstacles in forming genuine business to business collaborations; an issue that is particularly relevant to startups who fear being taken for a ride by larger, sometimes fake collaborators who may simply use the relationship as a means for accessing free IP.
The issue of IP in collaboration is one of the most crippling in Australia today as the country grapples with the frustration of a decade-long loss of productivity, an inability to generate better profit from innovation and a serious lack of panache to make entrepreneurialism flourish.
Of all the things I hear about collaboration, a permeating sense of distrust is, without fail, the main one mentioned. Rather than delving into the issue of trust, which has been addressed in a numerous of writings here at ROADMENDER, I want to put the spotlight a bit more on the government guidelines. How realistic are they? Will they have the desired effect of solving the problem, and if so, how will we know?
Strictly speaking this is not a case of government regulation. But we know from past experiences that anything the government does, even its light touch in providing guidelines, has the potential to act as soft regulation. I imagine the guidelines might be the first step, albeit shyly, leading towards a full blown regulatory regime. And this, I argue, would be a catastrophe for collaboration. While it could help businesses overcome some issues now, it would create a permanent roadblock to collaboration as a discipline which, lest we forget, is one of the major precursors to innovation. Don’t get me wrong; I thing regulation in business is oftentimes necessary and proves to work in the long term. But we increasingly have to be aware of the simple fact that governments are not the right mechanism for solving business problems; markets are.
The IP Toolkit for Collaboration is in itself is a good document. Clearly not to be confused as legal advice, which the author makes explicitly clear at the outset, but a good starting point for businesses that are dedicated to improving their collaboration capacity. There’s a lot of good advice that business managers should be able to incorporate into their collaboration strategies. Much of it is also supported by case scenarios which also provide a good set of examples of how IP can be managed in a collaboration between two or more businesses. The depth of advice is based on what I would consider a very conservative interpretation of collaboration. In fact, collaboration here seems to be very much tailored to the part of the spectrum which could be classed as standard business partnerships.
The toolkit defines collaboration in a somewhat simplistic manner, focusing only on the idea that it is about working together. Beyond this self-evident aspect, it is important to underscore again the range of factors that define collaboration. Collaboration is an ever-maturing practice that is still not well researched. Therefore any attempt to provide guidelines has to account for the complexity of the disruptive nature of collaboration, the innovative properties of collaboration and, perhaps most critically, the entrepreneurial sense of collaboration. While most businesses, especially mature enterprises tend to ‘talk’ collaboration, they in fact ‘mean’ partnership. A modification in mindset may make all the difference to the end result. And this must be reflected in the way IP is ‘handled’ in any true collaboration.