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Ethical dilemmas: About intellectual property

In this series we confront readers with ethical dilemmas and ask: what would you have done?

In the mid-1990s Paul Lynch, who was later to become President of the Institute of Management Consultants, penned a regular column in Management Consultancy magazine in which he posed ethical dilemmas that might confront management consultants. He asked readers what they might have done in those circumstances and in following editions fed back readers’ comments and suggestions.

Paul presented the dilemmas in a series of case studies involving fictitious professional firms and their clients in which the dilemmas are confronted by a mythical consultant, Antonia.

With Paul’s permission we are now re-publishing these dilemmas on similar terms.

What is interesting – and perhaps not surprising – is that the dilemmas have not particularly aged over the last 25 years, although where necessary we have made some editorial updates. Like Paul, we ask you what you think you would have done given the same circumstances, and in a following issue of this Newsletter we will present a commentary based on these responses and other reflections.

Dilemma 8 - about intellectual property

Here is another of Antonia's dilemmas which arose some years ago. She had developed a manual of procedures for a large enterprise three or four years previously. Unfortunately, the client had lost the manual, or at any rate could not find it. The manager in charge of the department wanted to formalise new procedures and incorporate the best of the old. He phoned Antonia and asked her for a copy of the manual. As a well organised and responsible consultant (of course!), she had a master copy.

When she put the phone down she began to wonder who owned the manual. What about the Intellectual Property Rights, to whom did these belong? The client probably has a right to a copy of the manual, since he paid for the original work. Antonia only retained a copy in case there was a query, or further work was required. In that case she would be able to refer to her own archives for an original copy, and conduct a survey to determine how much development had occurred since implementation.

She recalled her training time as a young consultant, when part of the induction training focused on how to make best use of the company library. The library didn't just contain reference books and manuals; it contained the company's proprietary practice guides on how best to tackle assignments. But it also contained copies of all reports and manuals prepared for clients. This enabled a consultant to dip into methodologies in practice, and review how a particular problem was solved at another client. This might help them formulate an approach that capitalised on the previous project and shortened their learning curve. This would also help to minimise the fee cost to the new client. This seemed reasonable at the time, but now she reflected, what about the Intellectual Property Rights? Who owns them? The original client or the consultancy?

She also began to wonder how it would look if her name was associated with something that was "clearly out of date." It couldn't reflect the latest thinking, or the new technology support which could change the response times out of all recognition. What should Antonia do? Should she provide the copy without qualification? Should she attempt to persuade the client to engage her to update the manual to reflect current conditions? Should she refuse to provide a copy?

What would your advice to Antonia be?

Friday 14th May 2021
The Thinker statue