Intellectual assets encompass intellectual property and potentially a lot more. To simplify the startup of a company’s Intellectual Asset Management (IAM) program, focusing on one or more of the traditional intellectual asset (IA) categories of Products, Processes, Services, and Brand is a good way to establish a baseline inventory of IA candidates from which to initiate disciplined management and exploitation of those assets. Sounds easy, right?
Well, actually, no. Complicating question: At what level of abstraction should the company track its intellectual assets?
Why Not CM?
Configuration management practice is concerned with identification, change management, status accounting, and audit of the fundamental structural units of a company’s assets. These fundamental units are commonly called configuration items, and can comprise such intangibles as individual requirements documents, software, models, and plans. Most organizations practice some level of configuration management. Depending on the organization, configuration management is often treated as falling on a spectrum somewhere between a lifecycle change management function and a librarian function (don’t get me started on that!).
As an old software configuration manager myself, I can imagine saying to an IAM professional seeking to audit my company’s intellectual assets, “Listen, our team already tracks our software configuration items down to the individual file level … sometimes even to the function level. Can’t you just use our software configuration item list? (translation: “… and spare me the time and bother of yet another audit?”)
Level of Abstraction Test
Tracking of assets for IAM purposes likely requires a different level of abstraction than tracking of configuration items for change management purposes. The trick to avoiding unnecessary duplication of tracking effort is to seine out just the assets that merit management attention for IAM purposes, and to leave the other assets to be tracked at the right levels using other, more appropriate procedures. The following series of questions serves as a good test for determining a workable level of abstraction for tracking IA:
Is it Sellable? – If the defined unit conceivably could be sold to an acquirer as a stand-alone asset, or certainly if the unit is being marketed for sale as a coherent whole, then that defined unit is a candidate to be tracked as an individual intellectual asset. For example, a software company that anticipates selling a particular product line to another software provider in the future at very least would track its full complement of source code, design documents, training manuals, and other software artifacts as a single intellectual asset. Alternatively, if that company can imagine a scenario whereby the source code and the software training documentation could be sold separately to two different buyers, that might suggest tracking the code and the documentation as two distinct intellectual assets.
Is it Licensable? – If the defined unit is currently licensed as an operable whole to one or more consumers for use, or if the unit could conceivably be so licensed, then it is a candidate for individual IA tracking. Furthermore, if the defined unit is now or could conceivably be licensed to another vendor (e.g., a value added reseller) for inclusion in that company’s product or service offering, that licensability as a plug-and-play unit suggests the right level of abstraction for uniquely tracking the asset. Note this test lends itself to monetization flexibility. For example, our fictitious software company above may shudder at the thought of licensing its full complement of source code to anyone, for fear of its cash cow being pilfered. However, that same company may see little risk in licensing for inclusion in a non-competing product a stand-alone subset of that software: say, for example, its login function written for a smart phone platform.
Is it Protectable for a Business Purpose? – If the company would be harmed beyond acceptable cost and effort to replace the defined unit should it be lost, destroyed, or “discovered” by a competitor; then the unit should be considered for individual tracking and management. Also, if the defined unit is mentioned by name in employment agreements, subcontractor agreements, and/or nondisclosure agreements executed by the company, that suggests the unit is an intellectual asset worthy of individual tracking.
Is it Reusable? – If a defined unit is a component of an asset that is nearing end of life, but can conceivably be reused in another asset; then tracking that unit as an intellectual asset in its own right can prevent accidentally ignoring or losing that asset during a product or service offering transition at the company.
Wise selection of the appropriate level of abstraction for tracking of intellectual assets can make or break a business’s IAM program. Wasteful duplication of tracking effort or unnecessary complexity can cause the program to collapse under its own weight. But don’t let that challenge deter program start: Much like in seine fishing, if you happen to net an asset that turns out not to be what you were expecting to catch …
throw it back, and just keep fishing!
(Originally posted June 19, 2012)