Listening to the Staff

26 July 2018

What a busy few weeks these have been. As well as a string of management meetings and other duties expected of a new President, I’ve had many enjoyable and productive meetings with staff members from across the EPO, on an individual basis. I felt it important to meet staff one-on-one because their knowledge and understanding of this organisation is crucial for assessing how we can make the Office an even better institution and in which areas we should start to think about making further improvements.

So, in nearly a hundred individual coffee meetings in Munich and The Hague – no, I didn’t have coffee every time! – I was able to gather honest and direct feedback from our employees to feed into a strategic plan. Immediately it became apparent how valuable the exercise would be. I was struck by the sheer depth and breadth of talent here, the various different professional and cultural backgrounds, and a profound engagement with the work. Staff members have come from industry, research establishments, national administrations and international institutions. I’ve met people who have been employed here for just a year or so, through to those with nearly three decades of experience at the EPO. Some have been formalities officers and many have been examiners. Others have been IT support staff, experts on international affairs and staff representatives. It is truly an international, talented workforce that we have and that is resulting from an active recruitment policy.

In the meetings, a number of common themes have cropped up time and time again. It seems that there’s a common understanding of the challenges we face and the possible solutions that we might envisage in the future. And, their ideas about how to progress also reflected the many obligations that the EPO has to its different stakeholders.

For a start, many of those I met talked about how we could support the staff in making the patent granting process more efficient. This has been a strategic focus at the EPO before – and I firmly believe we have to continue on this path. But it increasingly appears that the issue of efficiency is actually just one in a triangle of three closely-linked factors that will keep our organisation on track. The other two are quality and long-term sustainability. All three depend on each other and I’m convinced that the EPO’s optimum performance is located between all three. So we’ll be making further assessments of this organisation, such as audits, and forecasts, to help us determine exactly where we should be located between quality, efficiency and long-term sustainability.

I was delighted to hear from the staff members I met that they were already very passionate about quality. Never was it clearer to me that quality is in fact a culture here at the EPO. It’s a matter in which they take great pride. And they absolutely should be proud of what has been achieved and the reputation they have earnt for the EPO in this field so far. But I discussed with employees how we could perhaps start to make more effort to define the quality of the final product, rather than just the process. We could also see if it’s possible to achieve a greater convergence between the quality perceptions of our users, as the client, and ourselves, as the provider.

I also found a strong conviction among the staff that any improvements we make, whether in the patent granting process or environmental sustainability, would have to be supported by a thorough digital transformation. That’s a sentiment I could not be more in agreement with. Yes, under the last roadmap the EPO invested in 114 projects, many of which have helped the Office become a leading provider of patent information, with unparalleled access to prior art. But we are capable of so much more. A true digital transformation could help us achieve greater efficiency, support quality further, help our examiners do their job better and help us make gains in many other areas, particularly with the rapid development of Artificial Intelligence.  Both myself and staff members are clearly looking to cost effective, well-managed IT projects to ensure the EPO achieves new levels of digitalisation.

When discussing these matters with the individuals I met, it was interesting to note that nearly all of these issues were framed within the context of our users. Time and time again the conversation came round to how any improvements we make could be of direct benefit to our users. The attitude I have discovered is client-orientated, and one which will surely drive our organisation to provide more effective services.

There are of course other issues that were addressed and which we will be looking at in more detail over the coming months: staff training, career opportunities, maintaining competitive fees, buildings and facilities, and many, many more. And this is just the start. These meetings will continue for the next few months and I will meet hundreds more staff members – over 900 have enrolled – as l seek to gather more input that will feed into the strategy of the Office. And this input is on top of an extensive staff survey which is currently in preparation and which will ultimately provide us with more valuable feedback.

Above all, it is clear to me that all those I have had the pleasure of meeting directly are passionate about their work and care deeply for the future of this unique organisation. They have a profound collective knowledge of the EPO and a willingness to see it continue to succeed. I am convinced that if we can harness this extensive understanding and couple it to the expectations of our other stakeholders, the future of the EPO will continue to be very bright indeed.

António Campinos

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