How to prevent IP leakage undermining a culture of continuous improvement

At the heart of any business that expects to still be around – and still be relevant – a few years from now is a culture of continuous improvement. Continuous organisational improvement isn’t just about growing the business or finding new innovations to develop that all-important competitive advantage. In today’s rapidly changing world, a certain amount of continuous improvement is necessary just to stand still. Without it, a business can slowly fall behind the competition or, even worse, fall out of step with consumer expectations.

Continuous improvement can present in many different forms - in tiny increments, in bursts of innovation or in large future-proofed strategies and tactics. However it occurs in your business, the very idea of continuous improvement infers that it builds upon and adds to what has been before: optimizing current practices, reducing risks, or continually enhancing the collective knowledge, expertise, and talent within the business.

After all, it is on the latter that the decisions and strategies of the future will be built. What happens when knowledge, expertise, and talent are constantly churning in and out of the business? A culture of continuous improvement can become harder to achieve. Instead of moving forward, the challenge becomes how to replace what has been lost. The workforce is increasingly moving towards short-term employment. While older employees are more likely to stick around for their long-service leave, the median tenure for employees aged between 25 and 34 is only 3.2 years and is likely to shrink further. It might surprise you to learn that, according to Training Industry Quarterly, it can take at least 1-2 years for a new employee to become as fully productive as the previous person in the role.

Of course, there is the initial onboarding and training. However, once they’ve gone through these motions, a new employee will need time to adjust to new workplace culture, develop the necessary positive relationships and acquire the depth of knowledge to navigate the specific intricacies of working inside an organisation. Added to this, more than a third of the Australian workforce is now freelance. While this makes it a lot easier for businesses to work more flexibly – procuring and benefiting from specialised expertise as required – the transience of this expertise creates a continual brain drain as well as an increased risk of IP leakage. So how can a business continuously improve upon its expertise once the expert has left the building?

Stopping the brain drain

While it won’t always be possible or appropriate, one way to reduce the brain drain is to work with the same freelancers wherever possible. Immediately, this can shortcut some of the onboarding friction as they’re already familiar with the business and at least some of the people and processes within it. Creating strong relationships with freelancers can increase the chances of them choosing to work with your business again the next time their skills are needed. Nurture a positive freelance culture within the organisation and ensure the experience of working on the project is rewarding.

But treat them as temporary and they will be temporary. Also, if a freelancer is about to finish up on a project, there might be another project about to start up elsewhere in the business that could also benefit from their expertise. One of the most common ways to retain a freelancer is through those casual corridor conversations that can reveal other opportunities right there in the same building. In short, try to make it so your business always has the first right of refusal on what the freelancer does next. And that means exploring the possibilities well before the contract project is finished. Otherwise, a freelancer is likely to have already lined up their next gig – possibly even the one after that if their skills are particularly in demand.

Documenting the IP

Project-specific details and processes are extremely common pieces of essential information to overlook and lose when a contractor or consultant leaves the business. A contract developer might have successfully built the new website or developed new bespoke software for the business that exceeds expectations and wows management. But did they leave behind sufficient documentation to help the next developer who might be tasked with maintaining or updating it sometime in the future? And what about those who will be working with the finished project once launched? Are the processes clearly mapped out and documented in a format the average person can follow?

This is why offboarding is extremely important to avoid the contractor or consultant becoming a single point of failure. Just like any valuable business data and IP should be duplicated and backed up to prevent disaster if one source should fail, the knowledge in the expert’s head should similarly be backed up and documented before he or she leaves for next work assignment. Offboarding should include more than just paperwork and an exit interview. It should begin long before the time comes and include handover docs and other necessary documentation to be handed on to whoever may need to follow. This is where things like an internal wiki can help. Instead of each project requiring a separate set of documentation, a wiki allows information and knowledge to be captured in fragments and updated as required, building upon the wealth of information already there.

For example, some processes and details may already exist in the wiki and merely need a few additions or tweaks to include the new information. Wikis can also make it easier for knowledge-sharing throughout the business as it can be much easier for people to find exactly what they need instead of trawling a library of version-challenged documents created independently of each other. When skills and talent are becoming increasingly specialised and in demand, it becomes even more important to capture and retain as much of that expertise as possible. Otherwise, you may continue to see valuable IP and information walk out the door.

Key Takeaways:

  • A culture of continuous improvement can be undermined by the brain drain caused by a constant turnover of talent.
  • Working with the same freelancers whenever possible reduces some of the onboarding friction as well as the IP leakage.
  • A robust offboarding process that captures and documents any necessary IP and other information are essential.

Find out how the freelance and contingent workforce is reshaping how larger organisations move into the future. Discover the research and what it shows about the future of work in our free report:

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Bridget Loudon
Bridget is an accomplished entrepreneur, strategy consultant and private equity professional with a track record for success and a passion for change. Bridget has lived, worked and/or studied in Australia, Ireland, Canada, France, Hong Kong and the United States.

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contingent talent
Freelance
culture