American companies lose an estimated $150 billion to trade secret theft each year. Much more is lost due to plain carelessness. Innovation has always been the key to beating the competition but today’s manufacturing industry requires increasingly rapid generation of trade secrets and technology. However, the speed of technical innovation also creates ever increasing risks that these valuable assets will be lost to the competition, intentionally or unintentionally. With one click of the mouse or the insertion of a flash drive, an employee (or soon-to-be-former employee) can destroy the competitive advantage that a company has spent vast sums of money, as well as blood, sweat and tears, to develop.

Unfortunately, while much emphasis is placed upon the creation of trade secrets and technological innovations, not enough attention has been paid to the blocking and tackling needed to protect them. Companies do not fully understand the trade secrets they have created and their relative competitive value, do not systematically track and monitor their trade secrets, and overlook potential trade secrets and proprietary information that are not “technological” but provide a definite competitive advantage.

First, perhaps surprisingly, companies sometimes do not fully know what they have created and the relative value of these trade secrets. One of the most famous examples of this mistake is when Xerox provided Steve Jobs and Apple too much access to its Palo Alto Research Center. As is chronicled in the Jobs biography, while some of the scientists at Xerox knew the value of what was being disclosed, and were horrified that the transfer of technology was occurring, the executives did not appreciate the significance of the disclosed technology.

While the magnitude of this mistake was unique, this is not an isolated tale. Many manufacturers do not have a full understanding of what has been created and its relative value, and this makes it difficult, if not impossible, to protect it. The identification of such information is vital in the protection process and starts with talking to another one of your most valuable assets: your employees. Next-generation manufacturers need to be in constant contact with their key employees regarding the ever changing developments in today’s manufacturing. Keeping an open dialog with key employees can allow manufacturers to keep up-to-date on emerging issues and enable them to identify key information.