The annual compilation of companies receiving the most US patents was released last week. For the fourteenth consecutive year IBM earned more U.S. patents than any other company, with a record 3,621, exceeding the next closest patent holder by 1,140.
As in previous years, we used the occasion of this announcement to call attention to an important new program: a new initiative aimed at helping smaller companies participate and contribute to reforming patent systems and improving patent quality around the world.
IBM will develop and host the online Inventor's Forum, where individuals, small and mid-size companies, as well as venture capitalists and others who work with them can share and debate their ideas on patent reform. Since they account for a significant percentage of the invention that occurs around the world, it is crucial that we all understand their ideas as well as their concerns - so we can collaborate to improve the overall health of our patent systems.
I believe that in our increasingly global, integrated and transparent world, major business and societal initiatives like patent reform can succeed only if managed in a collaborative style for the benefit all constituents - not just the bigger and more powerful players. We need to learn from the characteristics of well functioning biological ecosystems. Let me elaborate.
Last Fall I participated in a workshop on Complex Engineered, Organizational and Natural Systems sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The key objectives of the meeting were to address two key questions: 1) What makes complex systems complex; and 2) What fundamental research is needed to better understand and deal with complex systems?
To help us understand their intrinsic nature, the NSF Workshop focused on three different kinds of complex systems: infrastructure and transportation; health care delivery; and bacteria-level design. The first two are clearly man-made, engineered systems. Bacteria level design is different - an example of how we are increasingly reaching out to systems biology to help us understand complex systems. In particular, biology can inspire us in how to design those complex systems that need to evolve continuously, in order to respond to the changing environment.
Business and societal institutions like government agencies, hospitals and universities are examples of such complex systems. These people-oriented systems need to be able to evolve in order to respond to changing market conditions, especially when those changes are coming at an increasingly rapid pace. To do so, they must exhibit biological properties, such as flexibility and adaptability.
In the last few years, our business language has been infused more and more with concepts from biology, such as the notion of ecosystems. Biological ecosystems strive to achieve some kind of steady state in which all components exist in some degree of equilibrium with each other - whether regulated by intrinsic control mechanisms, governed by stochastic events, or something else. In other words, the elements of a well functioning ecosystem somehow collaborate with each other to find the proper balance or harmony that enables the system and its constituents to survive and continue to evolve.
It should thus not be surprising that as businesses, industries and economies become increasingly integrated and approach the complexities of biological systems, there is so much emphasis placed on collaboration as a key way for companies to innovate, survive and evolve into the future.
In fact a key finding from the IBM Global CEO Study 2006 was the stress placed by CEOs on the importance of collaborating beyond company walls, with business partners and clients as top sources of innovative ideas, in contrast to previous organizational models, which assumed that innovation was too critical to involve outsiders. In today's fast-moving, highly competitive and complex environment, CEOs recognize that there are a lot more capabilities for innovation in the marketplace than they could create on their own, no matter how big and powerful the company. They need to be part of industry and economic eco-systems.
Such business imperatives underlie IBM's growing list of community-based efforts in the last few years, whether focusing on open source software, skills and jobs, or intellectual property. And while a number of such efforts have involved collaboration with other large companies, such as the development of the Cell processor with Sony and Toshiba, that is far from enough.
In fact, I could argue that in today's world, collaborating with smaller companies is even more important for a large enterprise, especially a globally integrated enterprise like IBM. Whatever individual power small companies may lack, they more than make up for it collectively in aggregate size, diversity and local reach. These are all qualities absolutely critical to the health of ecosystems – in business as well as biology.
It is in this light that our outreach to individual and small inventors is so important. We need all the participants in a healthy business ecosystem - which is what we aspire for patent systems to become - to work well with each other and find the right balance, helping us all to innovate, survive and evolve into the future.