Opening the Kimono on Trade Secrets

This is not an unfamiliar concern.

With all of this informal communication swirling within blogs, Twitter and other social networks.. how does one contain the private, trade secret information of a business?

The problem of losing trade secrets is as old as business itself. In a Wall Street Journal article published January 11, 1999, Rachel Emma Silverman cites examples from as early as 552, when the Byzantine Empire stole silkworms, mulberry leaves, and know-how from a Chinese silk factory. As she pointed out, “although industrial espionage occurred before this millennium began, it has become increasingly common in the past 500 years—when there have been many more secrets worth stealing.”

Businesses are already acutely aware that in order to engage in business partnerships, start a company, or build one’s business, some information has to be disclosed. There is usually a dance then between the sales and marketing team and the company attorney(s) to determine what exactly is classified as trade secret and what is not. If this has not happened yet in your organization, I HIGHLY recommend it. 🙂

Most printed materials are easily handled with “Confidential” disclosures at the bottom of each page. Secret chemical formulas, engineering plans and designs are often locked up and secured when their very existence provides your company with significant market advantage.

So, how does one secure these informal 140 character tweets and employee blog posts? I’ll give you a few of my thoughts,and then I ask you for yours.

  1. Differentiate what is truly trade secret from vanilla marketing communications and then only disclose the latter to your employees and customers. This is what they need to lead with.
  2. Low-level discussions of how your product works must only occur within earshot of an officer of the company so blog discussions and online communications of tactical and trade secret information are simply forbidden.
  3. First make employees read and then have them sign a Non Disclosure Agreement (NDA) as a part of their employment agreement. This lets them know you are serious.
  4. All blog posts that occur on the company blog are saved to draft prior to posting. All draft articles are corrected for grammar, spelling and content reviewed to ensure that it does not disclose competitive or trade secret information.
  5. Blogging that occurs outside of the company blog must only serve to build better personal and business networking, not solve problems or deal with issues. For example, thanking another blogger for their insightful article on aeronautics is acceptable, sharing with that same blogger how your company solved a problem with composite enamel degradation is not acceptable.

OK, so now that I have suggested the “lock-down” techniques, how does a business then actively and freely participate in social network building?

  1. Educate. All employees must listen to and understand what types of discussions are acceptable and which ones are not. Role playing and written examples are great ways to teach your employees how to communicate effectively and safely while on the Internet.
  2. Monitor and provide feedback. There is great opportunity to build relationships online. But simply locking down all forms of communications will only guarantee your company will design and deliver an inferior product that has not received peer-review or gone through the rigorous and thorough gauntlet of customer validation.
  3. Demonstrate. An oft forgotten method of leadership these days is By Example. Have your company officers participating in some of the discussions online. When your employees see the owner or their VP’s avatar online it serves as a constant reminder to behave.

Have you had any business train wrecks due to the use of Social Media? Have you ever opened your kimono too far? I am interested in what you have to say as these sort of dialogues can prove helpful to many.

editors note: At no time in this blog did I disclose any proprietary, sensitive or trade secret information. Any sharing, rebroadcast, Digging, or Re-Tweeting of this blog is encouraged.


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