A culture that can protect trade secrets is vital for innovative companies. Such a culture becomes especially important in collaborative innovation efforts where failure to protect trade secrets can severely damage partners and the offending company’s reputation.
Chinese companies are increasingly recognizing the value of what the West calls “open innovation.” In fact, forms of open innovation were the basis of a great deal of innovation in China long before the term was coined in the West. Innovation in China tends to be fueled by guanxi with trust between partners being far more important than the legal details drafter by lawyers for a joint venture or other collaborative effort. Innovation in China, though still largely overlooked by the West, frequently occurs as trusted friends or acquaintances discuss their needs and challenges and find new solutions by crossing disciplinary borders. The many partnerships and allies involved with leading innovators like Ten Cent, Alibaba, Foxconn, and Huawei testify to the fluidity and rapidity of innovation in China achieved via collaboration and shared vision among partners.
However, when companies in China or anywhere collaborate to find innovation, the inevitable sharing of trade secrets between partners puts the players at risk should there be inappropriate disclosure. Two leaders may fully trust each other, but if one of them leads a company with a weak IP culture where individuals fail to respect trade secrets, the partnership can be destroyed and severe damage can be done. Those engaging in a collaborative venture should be aware of the risks and consider their own culture and processes, as well as the culture, processes, and track record of partners. Zealous efforts are needed to avoid harm, even when there is no intent to harm or defraud. Simple slips can disclose information inappropriately and hurt a partner and one’s own reputation. Those pursuing open innovation need to pay particular attention to trade secret protection and ensure that only a few well trained employees will be exposed to the trade secrets involved in the partnership.
Unfortunately, university culture in China and throughout the world, generally speaking, is inherently geared toward sharing and publishing information, so partnerships with universities should be carefully pursued with the realistic expectation that information may be leaked. Containing the scope of the partnership and minimizing any sharing of corporate secrets can reduce risks, while still allowing a company to tap the many riches of knowledge and innovation in China’s academic community, where many companies are finding success in advancing innovation.