by Stephanie Overby

IBM Tries to Patent Offshoring

Oct 01, 20074 mins
IT Leadership

A recent patent application from IBM Global Services is making the email rounds in outsourcing circles — and beyond.

According to the abstract on the U.S. Patent office site, Big Blue says it’s got dibs on:

“A method for identifying human-resource work content to outsource offshore of an organization. The method is provided on a computer readable medium and includes the steps of identifying at least one task being performed by an organization; associating each identified task with a functional group within a plurality of functional groups related to the organization; determining information about individual human resources spent on each task; determining task information about human resources spent on the plurality of tasks, the task information based on the determined information about individual human resources spent on each task; using the determined task information to determine a value of each task; and outsourcing tasks having a value lower than a predefined limit to at least one of offshore and to a low cost supplier.”


First of all, IBM must have run the numbers and found it would be more cost effective to outsource the patent application writing to someone for whom English is a second language. And that’s just the abstract. Pity the poor U.S. Patent Office reviewer who has to wade through whole applications like this.

But back to the point of the patent. Those new to the world of IT services might be taken aback by a vendor bold enough to propose that it had invented this unique process called “offshoring.” Those familiar with IBM know it’s just another day at the office. Big Blue pays a premium to patent-filing employees. As a result, the $91 billion vendor filed 3,651 patents last year, making it the leader in U.S. patent filing for the 14th year in a row. Back in March, I wrote about IBM’s patent application for “benchmarking,” which one outspoken source likened to trying to patent breathing. It was a patent so broad that, if granted, it could give IBM the power to sue benchmarkers whenever they do their work, I was told.

Slashdot member Theodp points out two additional filings from IBM related to the offshoring invention claim, including patent applications for an electronic marketplace for “identifying, assessing, reserving and engaging knowledge workers for an assignment using trade-off analysis” (it matches available worker with job based on, but not limited to, experience levels, salary, geographic location, job starting date and duration, and industry sector) and a “system and method of using speech recognition at (offshore) call centers to improve their efficiency and customer satisfaction.” In the background explanation for the latter “invention,” the patent filers explain: “It is well understood in the art that customers who contact a call center with a question about a company’s products or services can get very frustrated when they cannot understand the support people they are talking with. This may be due to the support people not having good English language skills, or having an accent that makes it difficult to understand them. The end result is customer frustration, and a possibly huge cost to the brand of the company about whom the customer called.” And speech recognition software might be useful in dealing with the language barrier. You don’t say.

Returning to the initial patent filing that caught everyone’s eye… It’s unlikely IBM will find any success patenting their offshoring “innovation.” One source I talked to described the offshoring process patent as so general it was laughable. Like the benchmarking patent application, it vaguely describes a process used by almost every IT consulting firm in the world already uses.

You have to wonder why IBM encourages these patent applications at all. They certainly don’t do much for IBM-IT worker relations. Check out Slashdot and Democratic Underground for some good old-fashioned U.S. tech worker vitriol (and some from non-tech U.S. workers thrown in for good measure). And chances are these applications are not going to result in any really new, protected revenue streams for the company (though if they are successful with one of these, IBM’s competitors better lawyer up just in case).

But, hey, I’m not complaining. It gives us all something to blog about.

(UPDATE: IBM has caved and withdrawn the patent application. See my new post: Power to the People: IBM Withdraws Offshoring Patent.)