Patenting Learning Communities (Case Study 1)

One Way to Promote Diverse Innovation

“Whenever I went to the invention review boards, they were made up almost entirely of men, and I just didn’t see very many women patenting. I found this all rather confusing since, you know, there are a lot of women in IBM.” – Pam Nesbitt, Technology Team Facilitator at IBM

Pam Nesbitt launched IBM’s Women Inventors Community with the goal of demystifying the patenting process and bolstering women’s involvement in innovation. The initial response was overwhelming. “I sent an email in the middle of the night to 25 people I knew who then forwarded it to people they knew,” Nesbitt recalls. “By the next day, it had been forwarded around the globe. I soon received letters from many women, saying things like ‘I always wanted to patent but wasn’t sure my ideas were good enough.’”

Founded in 2006, the Women Inventors Community now includes approximately 1000 members from a variety of technical departments worldwide. Approximately 95% of the membership is female. Members can access an international network of fellow employees who offer advice, mentorship, and support on patenting. Several locations have established local chapters that meet in person. The program also offers online workshops on a variety of relevant topics, such as information on the patenting process, patenting success stories, career improvement opportunities, and claims writing.

To increase motivation for patenting, the community also sponsors an annual “Patent Challenge.” To qualify, teams must be made up of Innovation Community members and must include at least one woman (most teams include at least 50% women). The teams submit their entries to the patent review board, which reviews them for filing eligibility. Eligible submissions are filed and a panel of judges identifies the top two entries. The first year’s winning team comprised two women, one of them a first-time patenter. This team was awarded a visit with an executive sponsor and a number of high-level executives. Additional challenges are underway in India and China.

Formal evaluation results are still pending, but initial results seem promising. As Nesbitt observes, “I have personally watched at least 10 women in the program with no previous experience in patenting who are now sitting on invention review boards, organizing their own local innovation communities, and in some cases, have been selected by their department heads to lead the department’s patenting efforts.”


Avaya Implements New Patenting Groups

Avaya recently launched a new patenting program under the direction of Sarah Kiefhaber. Thus far, the program consists of 40 employees; 22 of these are women. Participants are organized into eight teams with five members. Three of these teams include two women, four teams include three women, and one team includes four women. Most of the participants are from R & D departments but every team also has at least one representative who works more closely with the customer base.

To help guide the teams, Kiefhaber distributed an initial instruction sheet with suggestions for how to get started, what to do at meetings, and where to find patent submission forms. She also compiled a list of the different teams’ ideas so that teams could work on ideas other teams did not have time to pursue, as well as a list of employees who hold patents and were willing to assist the new teams.

Thus far, two of the groups have begun regular meetings. One of these teams has submitted five preliminary patent ideas and is currently working with patent attorneys who will help them prepare two or three formal submissions. The second team is currently exploring six specific ideas for potential patenting. Kiefhaber is currently conducting informal evaluation to determine what is working and where teams need more guidance. Stay tuned for more details as the program progresses.

Some Components of Successful Patenting Groups

While these programs have yet to be formally evaluated, the following components seem to be important for success:

  • Strong program and team leadership
  • Guidance by employees who have patented
  • Mixed gender team composition
  • Teams composed of members from diverse departments or job functions


  • For more information, contact Pam Nesbitt at, or Sarah Kiefhaber at
  • Case Study Contributor: Pam Nesbitt, Technology Team Facilitator, IBM, and Sarah Kiefhaber, Consulting Member of Technical Staff, Avaya.

View related research:

Author: Catherine Ashcraft