During World War II, the War Advertising Counsel published the poster shown above to stress the importance of service members and citizens watching what they say about military plans. The idea was that information shared on the street or in a letter about where little Johnny’s ship was heading could be intercepted by the enemy, possibly resulting in danger for that ship (not to mention little Johnny). Inside the military, the importance of keeping secrets has always been an important part of daily operations. In my Marine Corps squadron, my ground job involved working in the equivalent of the intelligence department, which placed my desk in a windowless vault that contained numerous safes and a coded door lock that allowed access only those who had the requisite clearance to enter the room. If classified information was not accounted for at any given time, everyone in the building stopped what they were doing to locate that information.
Like the military, companies have information that they do not want out in the public, so a culture of maintaining secrets is also important in business. If that information derives independent economic value from the fact that it is not known to outsiders, it may be a “trade secret” (as discussed in my previous blog post). That culture must start at the top and permeate through an entire organization.
How are middle-to-lower level employees convinced of the importance of protecting trade secrets? Perhaps an understanding that their jobs and the success of the company could depend on keeping confidential information inside the company will do the trick. Whether they are convinced or not — and companies with greater employee buy-in typically fair better — the importance of corporate-wide policies cannot be underestimated.
Once a culture is in place, implementation of detailed policies and procedures naturally follows. Policies must reach throughout the company, including human resources, information technology (internal safeguards and protection against outside attacks), and facilities, to name a few areas. But all the policies in the world do no good if employees throughout the company do not commit to a culture established and modeled by company leaders. If the culture is inconsistent, then the threat to a company’s trade secrets — discussed in my next blog post — will be greater, often to the company’s peril.