When the 176-year-old German firm of Benckiser NV merged with the 159-year-old British company Reckitt and Coleman PLC in 1999, one of the world’s largest health, hygiene and home consumer goods was born. Now the  company, Reckitt Benckiser (RB) has operations in 60 countries, sales in almost 200 and a global employee base of 38,000.  

One primary challenge in merging large complementary companies is sustaining growth while realizing new levels of efficiency and cost savings. The organizations must take on this challenge while simultaneously integrating management teams, sales and product groups, operating assets and procurement divisions, which is not a trivial task. 

What follows is the story of how RB merged and migrated its patent processing department into an efficient and integrated whole. Six months ago, RB was still using mostly paper-based processes. The transition process took time and care to manage effectively, but today, RB’s 13,500 active patents and patent applications are readily available to our global patent group anywhere in the world, at any time.

1. Establishing work processes and building the team

Twelve years ago, when RB was formed, Reckitt & Colman operated the majority of its R&D in Hull, U.K where the patent department was located. Benckiser, on the other hand, did not have a patent department. Therefore, early in the merger process, the first task was to consolidate the now-joined company’s patents in Hull. While the consolidation was taking place, it became clear that a patent attorney was needed at the U.S. office based in Parsippany, N.J., so a second patent office was born. Quickly thereafter, based on a global strategy, RB established another patent office at global headquarters in Slough, U.K. Over the past decade, attorneys, administrators and secretaries have worked in these three offices to streamline and integrate patent processing for RB worldwide. They have established systems and workflows to work with outside counsel in 30 different countries and manage the large caseload of patents vital to RB’s success.

Once RB’s consolidation was complete, our patent team was on a path of working well together. The processes, roles, responsibilities and operating procedures between the offices and the staff were documented and understood.  RB is strict in how we move our workflow. Each paper process has two checks: formalities and records. But although the process was strong on quality, we needed to focus on efficiency. Three offices, paper-based processes and large volumes of incoming email added up to an inefficient process that needed improvement.

As the global patent department evolved, RB continued to add attorneys in Slough and in Hull and there was constant correspondence between the two offices. In Hull, all the docketing was handled and files were kept in paper form. If something came in by email, the staff printed, docketed and filed it in Hull. Meanwhile in Slough, all the technical correspondence was kept in a duplicate ”shadow” file, which would then have to be merged with the files in Hull. This highly duplicative process led to some frustrations.

In 2010, the company set up an initial electronic system in Slough. The initial solution was a document management system using a folder structure. Although the system worked in principle, it was clunky. The network would go down often and saving an email took around 10 clicks.  For 10 months, the patent department was split between using paper files and a basic electronic flat folder storage system. This arrangement was seen as a temporary measure until the team could identify a more suitable electronic system for the full team.

2. Enhancing efficiency with a digital IP solution

In 2011, RB decided to move toward open-plan offices to save space and money. In the context of the new office and space saving, thousands of paper-based files that the company stored and relied upon were no longer practical to maintain. It became an ideal moment to implement a “less-paper” IP management solution.

With the IP team working as a unit, we developed the requirements for the new system. We sought technology that would enable all of the company’s patents to be accessible to all team members at any time, regardless of their location or role. The system would need to be secure, efficient and easy to use so that personnel with different levels of technical expertise could be up and running quickly. One key requirement was an audit trail of incoming and outgoing email.  With 30 outside counsel firms and a team working in more than 40 countries, tracking email was critical. RB also needed a system that would offer seamless integration with our existing CPA docketing system.

In March 2012, RB decided to implement First To File (FTF) to store and manage all IP assets using a web-based Electronic File Room (EFR). Deciding factors included the ease of use and familiar look and feel of the folder interface as well as an add-in for Outlook, a feature that enables team members to upload attachments directly into the EFR document repository.  

Prior to implementation, each team member received two new monitors for displaying and working with their documents (monitors being so inexpensive and a great boost to productivity and morale).  We required everyone to use the electronic system, and once the switch was flipped, everyone got on board.    It has been a positive initiative and even “old schoolers” have found having a centralized online system useful. The team understood that we had to change in order to work together more efficiently, and build for the future.

Having migrated our documents and workflow to an electronic solution, we are working more efficiently with email and its accompanying avalanche of attachments. The next step will be to make it easier to work with documents when and where we need to- i.e. going mobile. In today’s business world, we are all carrying out more business when traveling and not in the office, whether by email or on the mobile phone.

We even have early adopters at RB who have started mobile usage, and as tablets and smartphones are becoming ubiquitous in the business community, I envisage this being phase three of the RB IP Management story—the show will be permanently live on the road.

In just six months, we transformed a cumbersome paper-based process to an efficient electronic one. The transition was seamless and this modernization of our patents process was an essential move in our progress toward a modernized workflow model.