Many companies guard their expertise and intellectual property fiercely. It’s easy to see why. Our economy is increasingly dominated by knowledge workers and governed by intellectual property. Innovative tech firms face constant litigation and charges of stolen ideas (for example, see here).

So what happens when a company that lives off its ideas gives them away?

Consider the case of IDEO, the world-famous design company based in Palo Alto, California. Ideas are the lifeblood of an organization whose clients clamor for them in applications as varied as business plans, product design, and customer interaction. In early 2008, an IDEO team led by Tatyana Mamut began work with the Gates Foundation and IDE, an international development organization, to improve the way they design aid projects. A year later, the Human Centered Design toolkit (HCD), appeared on IDEO’s website as a downloadable pdf. The toolkit walks its users, step by step, through a process that echoes what IDEO has done with its clients for years. It’s a published version of IDEO’s source code for innovation that applies world-class design to development projects for people who live on $2 a day. Some 38,000 downloads later, the team is working on a further edition, perhaps to be complemented by an online community for HCD users. It’s all available for free.

According to Mamut, organizations around the world that could never have afforded design consultants are successfully using the HCD toolkit to develop products, services, and intervention programs of all kinds. It is also good for IDEO’s own business. “It’s not in our interests for our process to be opaque to our clients,” Mamut says. For IDEO, it’s better to have more people understand how IDEO works. The publicity has even brought in new clients (though that wasn’t a goal for the project). Further, there’s little direct overlap among toolkit users and IDEO’s traditional client base. People who would usually pay for their services aren’t opting to use the toolkit for free instead. Rather, IDEO has attracted a new group of followers who are learning what design can do for their work.

Religious communities will not be surprised to see the power of wisely-given, time-tested advice to change lives. It’s an essential part of their purpose and philosophy to give away their most treasured ideas. What’s encouraging is that for-profit businesses can learn how to give away theirs away, too. In the very long run, all knowledge is open-source, but it could be good for businesses to reveal more of how they work right now.

Fritz Gugelmann got his PhD under Stanley Hauerwas in Duke’s Department of Religion. He works at Duke Corporate Education , and consults for Patent Free Zone.