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Suppose we have the following situation: Employee has signed an NDA. Boss asks to do something new that requires maybe bachelor degree on some other field employee has never done before. Is it legal/wise to ask for example a professor of that particular field a roadmap to solve the problem, when data has been anonymized? If not, what should a worker do?

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    What does the NDA specify about consulting external parties, or about anonymizing for such purpose? Also, what does you boss say? – DarkCygnus Jan 20 at 22:11
  • I think your question doesn't make sense as written. I changed "employer" -> "employee" because that's how the question seemed to be asked. Please correct this edit and add additional context if it is in error. – Ertai87 Jan 20 at 22:12
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    I don’t think it’s appropriate to ask anyone outside of your company for assistance on any work related task. Entirely up to the company to spin their own employees up for a task. Why would the professor help someone solve a business problem for free? – Donald Jan 20 at 22:59
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    @Donald Most of the questions on Stackoverflow are for work-related tasks. – DaveG Jan 21 at 19:45
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    @Donald Yes, I've looked at questions. Very few of them look like personal interest. The vast majority that I've looked at are related to work. Do you have data to support that the questions on Stackoverflow are not work-related? – DaveG Jan 21 at 21:17
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Is it legal/wise to ask for example a professor of that particular field a roadmap to solve the problem, when data has been anonymized? If not, what should a worker do?

You should ask your boss, and explain to them as you did here that certain level of knowledge is required to complete the project, and what can you do to get that knowledge.

You boss will then be able to tell you if consulting an external party (like your professor) is a wise idea or not, or what other steps you can take to solve this.

Usually, if you are handed down a task, it is expected of you to learn and research the things necessary to complete the task; your boss may be expecting this from you.

If you feel that the things needed to complete the task are beyond the reasonable time to learn them I would suggest you also tell that to your boss so you can work on a solution on time.

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It is the safest to ask your boss.


BUT, you can avoid asking your boss, and still be as safe. It all depends on how you interact with the professor.

Not OK:

Hello professor, we are just inventing a device which ... (something), and I need your support with ... (whatever)

OK:

Hello professor, I am faced with a problem at work. While dealing with a task, I found myself having to solve an equation, and I do not know how to handle it.

Or:

Hello professor, I am faced with a problem at work. While dealing with a task, I found myself having to apply the theory (name of theory) , and I do not know much about it. Will you please support me with this? In the worst case, at least recommend me some suitable literature, please.

In this way, you tell nothing about your job and the NDA-protected stuff, you only talk about generic subjects "everyone" knows about, as long as they have the required degree.

Even better, when you talk with your professor, you might not even mention your job. Just tell him that you ran into the subject, and you seek professional support.

It is not lying, it is just keeping irrelevant information outside of the discussion. The relevant information is that you need help.

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Based on your comment reply, you do not know the actual professor. All of these answers assume you know the professor and that you are trying to ask your boss. I feel the first step is to contact the professor to see if he is even willing to help out someone who is not taking any of his classes, possibly not even attending the college/university (assuming here), and asking to assist in what I assume a fairly large scale unknown project that I assume would gain profit for the company. Basically what you're going to ask this professor is, "I don't know what I'm doing, I need your help to please my boss for a company that is going to make revenue from what you tell me." That's a lot to ask of a complete strange who has nothing to gain except wasting time.

My thought is you should first determine if the professor is willing to help. First step is to ask your boss if you can enlist the help of a professor. My guess is he'll say no because your relationship with this professor is based on nothing. It may even look really bad for you if the professor does not help and you told your boss you don't know how to do it without this professor's help.

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If you’re going to consult a professor, ask your boss for a consultation budget first.

Many professors, when asked for assistance for someone from industry, will respond with something like, “Sure, I’d be happy to help you out. My consultation fees are $X hundred/thousand per hour.”

Needless to say, asking the professor and then balking at the fees will make it look like you aren’t serious about working with them. You have to remember, university professors are very busy people; they’re not going to go out of their way to help you unless you make it worth their time.

So, if you want to ask the professor for help, and you’re serious about it, the best thing to do is to ask your boss to approve a budget for hiring consultants before you go out looking for them.

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