2020 marked a turning point for the EPO. Despite the multiple challenges created by the pandemic, performance remained high. Thanks to the resilience, flexibility and real commitment to deliver shown by its staff, the EPO successfully tackled a slightly higher workload than in 2019, while also achieving steady improvements in timeliness. To support staff in mastering the incoming workload, the EPO also leveraged digital tools to improve efficiency.
Looking through the lens of the COVID-19 crisis, the EPO revisited its Strategic Plan 2023 (SP2023) at the end of July 2020. Based on lessons learnt from year one of the plan's implementation, some projects were reprioritised and a pipeline approach was adopted to streamline their deliverables. The plan is structured around five goals that will ultimately create a smarter and more sustainable organisation.
In goal 1 of SP2023 to build an engaged, knowledgeable and collaborative organisation, there was a clear focus on promoting internal job mobility, and especially partial mobility. New development programmes were set up for project managers, quality auditors and diversity and inclusion promoters, coupled with an "Advanced Leadership" programme for EPO managers. To reflect the growing importance of continuous learning, the EPO also launched a new online training portal (iLearn), giving all staff remote access to learning resources. It also welcomed a record intake of 77 new Pan-European Seal trainees last September. Lastly, the EPO conducted two Office-wide staff surveys in 2020 to gauge how staff were coping with the crisis and gather their views on the "new normal".
With the pandemic pushing the EPO to go digital faster, goal 2 projects aiming at simplifying and modernising IT systems moved ahead at full steam in 2020. On top of rapidly rolling out laptops and homeworking hardware, the Office started developing software by delivering minimum viable products (MVPs) in rapid, frequent iterations with incremental improvements. This agile approach proved highly effective in driving digital transformation forward. Digital workflows and annotation tools were progressively integrated into the Patent Workbench, establishing it as the single interface for interactions between examiners and formalities officers. The EPO also started decommissioning its mainframe, enhancing cybersecurity and developing in-house AI-based models for pre-classification. In parallel, it developed an ambitious business change realisation plan, to reach out to staff and ensure that change management activities were fully aligned with the IT solutions delivered and operational needs.
Goal 3 of SP2023 focuses on delivering high-quality products and services, but with a new, user-centric focus. Maintaining close contact with users proved crucial in 2020. In practice, this meant holding regular virtual meetings with user associations, enlarging the SACEPO framework and tripling the size of the SACEPO Working Party on Quality, which was reorganised into regional groups to ensure better global coverage. Last year also saw the launch of two new platforms: a Digital File Marketplace and a Digital Talent Marketplace. The file marketplace platform ensures transparent exchanges of files between examiner teams and, coupled with digital "pull" file allocation, maximises effective workload rebalancing. The platform also enhances quality by promoting collaboration between technically skilled examiners from different teams across the organisation.
Looking at the bigger picture, the Digital Talent Marketplace makes it easier for examiners to switch specialist fields and acquire new expertise. From a talent management perspective, this tool puts the EPO in a stronger position to respond to emerging trends in patent applications. Together, these initiatives are part of a tireless drive to improve quality and timeliness, which also depends heavily on collaboration. With teams dispersed and largely teleworking in 2020, promoting collaboration became more crucial than ever. In response, the EPO extended its "Enhancing Collaboration" (ECo) project to 65 examiner teams and eight formalities teams. By empowering teams to take ownership of their own work practices, the project boosted motivation and engagement levels.
2020 was another strong year for the EPO in terms of its goal 4 commitment to build a European patent network with a global impact. In June 2020, the Administrative Council of the European Patent Organisation unanimously approved the new co-operation framework between the organisation and its member states. Intensive discussions in 2020 on a new policy for working agreements on search co-operation with member states culminated in its approval by the Administrative Council in December. The new policy introduced a single search fee for all member states with a working agreement and financial support for national searches for applications filed by certain types of applicant (SMEs, universities and natural persons). The Council also approved the first-ever common practices under SP2023's convergence programme, marking a historic milestone on the path to a more robust IP system. On the IT front, solid progress was made towards developing a new electronic European Qualifying Examination (e-EQE) and facilitating closer technical co-operation between member states too.
Despite the pandemic, the EPO continued to expand its geographical reach in 2020. In November the Office signed a reinforced partnership (RP) agreement with the Superintendence of Industry and Commerce of Colombia. On 1 December 2020, the EPO and the China National Intellectual Property Administration (CNIPA) officially launched a two-year pilot enabling Chinese applicants filing their international applications in English with the CNIPA or the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) as receiving Office to select the EPO as their International Searching Authority (ISA). This makes the EPO the first patent office outside of China that can be designated as an ISA for Chinese applicants.
Lastly, 2020 saw major strides towards goal 5 of SP2023, which focuses on securing the EPO's long-term sustainability. In terms of financial sustainability, progress was made with the Council's approval of a bundle of six measures to address the coverage gap identified by the EPO's latest Financial Study and a new salary adjustment method. In terms of the EPO's environmental footprint, 2020 saw an impressive 86% reduction in CO2 emissions from duty travel. The rapid switch to digital workflows triggered by the pandemic also led to huge paper savings, with consumption falling by 58.6 million sheets in 2020.
The full implications of the rapid transformations witnessed in 2020 were still emerging as the year drew to a close. But they will undoubtedly shape the EPO's vision and steer its course as the organisation moves towards the "new normal".