The maxim "knowledge is power" was first coined by Sir Francis Bacon in the 16th century. We risk losing track of this in the deluge of raw data generated in the modern technology-driven organisation.
Nevertheless, a lot of management time and effort often gets devoted to processes designed to filter the mass of raw data to produce intelligent information that can be used intelligently by CIOs and their board to make intelligent choices about the future direction of their business.
But the difference between data and knowledge seems to me to be far better understood than the distinction between knowledge and intellectual property rights (IPR). And, it strikes me increasingly often, nowhere is this distinction more poorly understood than during the process of contracting between customers and ICT providers. Many organisations over-value (and over-protect) IPR and under-value (and, therefore, under-protect) knowledge.
Any IPR is little more than a legalised monopoly right to use certain rights and to prevent others from doing so. IPR takes a number of recognised forms, most typically patents, copyrights, trademarks, designs or databases.
IPR may be inherently intangible, but at least IPR has recognised forms and therefore lends itself to some form of definition and contractual control – and, importantly, some element of valuation. The IPR clause often sits at the heart of any contract in the ICT world, because a software vendor or service provider will want to make sure that it doesn't lose its hard-earned IPR and grants only a licence in certain pre-defined limited terms.
From the customer's perspective, it feels as if it's investing time and effort in a particular product and, depending upon the extent of that investment, if new elements are created, then it should own IPR in those new elements, shouldn't it?
As I have pointed out before, this argument can be a red herring and, increasingly, it's rare to come across a situation where there's genuinely new IPR created or where ownership is a legitimate issue. More often, it's about creating appropriate licence rights that allow each party to do what it wants with the IPR in the future.
More fundamentally, the focus on IPR in an ICT contracting relationship distracts from what actually ought to be the key issue for a CIO – that is, capturing and protecting the knowledge that gets created through a process or contracting relationship. It's what exists in people's heads, or what process flows or procedures actually happen in practice. That knowledge doesn't rise to the level of protectable IPR and is even more intangible than IPR. It's this intangibility that leads to knowledge being the poor relation to IPR in many ICT contracting relationships.
I believe that CIOs ought to instil in their teams the need to worry more than they do about knowledge and to take greater steps to ensure that key knowledge stays within the organisation, especially to ensure clear obligations on vendors to make certain that they don't take that knowledge away during, or at the end of, their relationship.
Importantly, this isn't just an "exit assistance" issue. Leaving to the end of a relationship is parking the issue until it's too late. There ought not to be issues around requiring a provider to document – or help the in-house team document – functional processes within the IT organisation. It is wrong to think that that sort of information about the way in which a key part of any organisation works is somehow knowledge or "know-how" that belongs to the vendor. (And, by the way, don't get me started on vendor contracts that define IPR to include know-how: know-how is not, and has never been, a protectable form of IPR.)
As modern organisations evolve, they ought to take the more mature view that, except perhaps in relation to specific important items of IPR in which they proactively invest, ownership of IPR is less important than devoting time and appropriate resources to practical ways of identifying and securing the knowledge in the way their organisation actually works.