A new (for me) understanding of standardization

When engaging deeply in any standardization project, as I have with the InLOC project, one is likely to get new insights into what standardization is, or should be. I tried to encapsulate this in a tweet yesterday, saying “Standardization, properly, should be the process of formulation and formalisation of the terms of collective commitment”.

Then @crispinweston replied “Commitment to whom and why? In the market, fellow standardisers are competitors.” I continued, with the slight frustration at the brevity of the tweet format, “standards are ideally agreed between mutually recognising group who negotiate their common interest in commitment”. But when Crispin went on “What role do you give to the people expected to make the collective commitment in drafting the terms of that commitment?” I knew it was time to revert from micro-blogging to macro-blogging, so to speak.

Crispin casts me in the position of definer of roles — I disclaim that. I am trying, rather, firstly to observe and generalise from my observations about what standardization is, when it is done successfully, whether or not people use or think of the term “standardization”, and secondly, to intuit a good and plausible way forward, perhaps to help grow a consensus about what standardization ought to be, within the standardization community itself.

One of the challenges of the InLOC project was that the project team started from more or less carte blanche. Where there is a lot of existing practice, standardization can (in theory at least) look at existing practice, and attempt to promote standardization on the best aspects of it, knowing that people do it already, and that they might welcome (for various reasons) a way to do it in just one way, rather than many. But in the case of InLOC, and any other “anticipatory” standard, people aren’t doing closely related things already. What they are doing is publishing many documents about the knowledge, skills, competence, or abilities (or “competencies”) that people need for particular roles, typically in jobs, but sometimes as learners outside of employment. However, existing practice says very little about how these should be structured, and interrelated, in general.

So, following this “anticipatory” path, you get to the place where you have the specification, but not the adoption. How do you then get the adoption? It can only be if you have been either lucky, in that you’ve formulated a need that people naturally come to see, or that you are persuasive, in that you persuade people successfully that it is what they really (really) want.

The way of following, rather than anticipating, practice certainly does look the easier, less troubled, surer path. Following in that way, there will be a “community” of some sort. Crispin identifies “fellow standardisers” as “competitors” in the market. “Coopetition” is a now rather old neologism that comes to mind. So let me try to answer the spirit at least of Crispin’s question — not the letter, as I am seeing myself here as more of an ethnographer than a social engineer.

I envisage many possible kinds of community coming together to formulate the terms of their collective commitments, and there may be many roles within those communities. I can’t personally imagine standard roles. I can imagine the community led by authority, imposing a standard requirement, perhaps legally, for regulation. I can imagine a community where any innovator comes up with a new idea for agreeing some way of doing things, and that serves to focus a group of people keen to promote the emerging standard.

I can imagine situations where an informal “norm” is not explicitly formulated at all, and is “enforced” purely by social peer pressure. And I can imagine situations where the standard is formulated by a representative body of appointees or delegates.

The point is that I can see the common thread linking all kinds of these practices, across the spectrum of formality–informality. And my view is that perhaps we can learn from reflecting on the common points across the spectrum. Take an everyday example: the rules of the road. These are both formal and informal; and enforced both by traffic authorities (e.g. police) and by peer pressure (often mediated by lights and/or horn!)

When there is a large majority of a community in support of norms, social pressure will usually be adequate, in the majority of situations. Formal regulation may be unnecessary. Regulation is often needed where there is less of a complete natural consensus about the desirability of a norm.

Formalisation of a norm or standard is, to me, a mixed blessing. It happens — indeed it must happen at some stage if there is to be clear and fair legal regulation. But the formalisation of a standard takes away the natural flexibility of a community’s response both to changing circumstances in general, and to unexpected situations or exceptions.

Time for more comment? You would be welcome.

6 thoughts on “A new (for me) understanding of standardization

  1. Simon,

    From my perspective, the problem with InLOC and other like projects is the lack of any implementers or key stakeholders at the table. So my tweet was not casting you as the definer of roles – the roles of standards implementer and standards creator are clear enough already without further definition. It is about pointing out that the nature of standardisation changes very significantly depending on who is doing it to whom.

    My observation about InLOC suggests that the main problem with standardisation is a marketing problem – getting the implementers to the table. In my view, your phrase about collective commitment is not helpful because to me it suggests a moral responsibility to come to the table, which I think is (a) unfounded and (b) likely to make any red blooded businessman run a mile.

    I agree with you that there are different standardisation scenarios. In the dimension you discuss, I would suggest 3:

    1. De facto: a formal process in which existing specifications that have already achieved widespread acceptance are whisked through as-is;

    2. Balanced: a negotiated process in which different community specs are aligned, preferably in a conversation which combines the mediation of standards experts, acting as shuttle diplomatists between the different community representatives;

    3. Anticipatory: in which the experts create a specification and then try to “sell” it to the communities.

    Route 1 may be ideal but give undue influence to sectional or anti-competitive influences. It is not very popular with standards experts, whom it reduces to the role of the Queen at the opening of Parliament, reading out a speech written for her by someone else.

    Route 2 encapsulates a substantive process that delivers real benefit and gives the standards experts the opportunity to demonstrate their value.

    Route 3 is probably the most attractive to the experts but may again be captured by sectional interests and is very unlikely to succeed unless the “selling” is backed by government regulation and enforcement (in which case you had better be 100% sure that the standard you are imposing is a good one).

    I think we would both agree that type 2 is probably best, though in real life, a successful process may share something of all three. I suggest the problem in achieving processes which are predominantly of type 2 is (a) to encourage sufficient pre-standardisation activity and (b) to understand the motivation of the main actors in order to bring them to the full standardisation table.

    Understanding that motivation, in my view, is therefore the key requirement, and marketing outreach should be the key activity. Writing the actual specs is like painting your walls – almost trivial when you’ve done the hard work which is to prepare the surfaces.

    Maybe that analogy is not great because by the time you come to formal standardisation, most of the specs ought in my view already to have been written in pre-standardisation processes. The different specs are then the pieces on the board. Going back to your phrase, “formulation” should be regarded as belonging primarily to a pre-standardisation stage, “formalisation” is the primary activity conducted during formal standardisation, along with only enough formulation as is required to ensure convergence between existing solutions.

    Or to put it another way, we need clear blue (green, brown, azure?) water between specifications development and standardisation – they should be viewed as separate processes. And no formal standardisation process should in my view even be contemplated without strong stakeholder representation at the table.


  2. Thanks, Crispin — I think in effect we have mainly identified the weakness of microblogging — I picked you up on the phrase “What role do you give…” which you have sort-of corrected now, and you picked me up on the phrase “collective commitment” which of course might scare off a “red blooded businessman”, but I doubt they are the primary audience of this blog. Yes, one would vary the terminology appropriately for the audience.

    Though, maybe, my phrase points to the reality of business people being allergic to all standardization, because it does indeed mean a constraint on their freedom. They will, of course, adopt standards only if there is a business case, with a positive “bottom line”.

    About scenarios, yes, we broadly agree. InLOC was set up to follow your Route 3, and it was up to the team to try to get as much buy-in along the road. Collectively, we could perhaps have done better, though we did try, and it was hard (for the reasons I have outlined elsewhere). But this is not actually the most attractive route to me (whether or not you count me as an “expert”). Route 3 is more risky and subject to the whims of luck. I hope it will turn out to have been worth the very considerable (extra) effort put in.

    We are, of course, still compliant with your norm expressed in your final paragraph — InLOC was specification development; the CWA was simply an acknowledgement by our local standards community that we have done a good job; and we are not pushing for formal standardization before stakeholders turn up at the table.

    And I can rely on you to help get those stakeholders to the table, can’t I? …

  3. Hi Simon,

    Sure – working my butt off on it!

    The only point on which I do not agree with you here is the analysis that businessmen do not like standards. In truly commercial, consumer markets, standards are much more common than in education.

    I think that on the quality side, this comes from government’s need to regulate the red blooded businessmen (or at least the red-blooded businessmen’s desire to head off that regulation). But on the interoperability side, I think it comes from genuine self-interest, a desire to grow the market as well as fight over the cake currently in the oven. So we see data standards commonly produced in e.g. the airline industry to co-ordinate with online booking agencies. In other circumstances, the “standards maker” might be a dominant corporate interest (Microsoft for desktop computers, Apple for mobile apps). Whatever we think of this scenario, at least they knew what they were doing. The trouble in education is that the potential “market builder” are governments, who are (a) parochial in their views, and (b) do not always know what they are doing technically. That problem has been compounded by the Catch22 that comes up in game theory, I think – that people would all be better off if they collaborated on something (in some circumstances at least), but risk being disadvantaged if they try and collaborate and the other guy does not. So, going back to your original phrase, I do also accept that there is a trust issue too.

    But enough of the idle chat – better get on with the outreach! Thanks for the conversation.


  4. Thanks again, Crispin — you prompt me to make an explicit softening of my stance on the acceptability of standards to business people. Looks like we do agree that for the average business person, the argument for or against standards is all about the business case. Of course, the genuine bottom line business interests of companies are not always 100% obvious, which is why there is scope for advocacy. Can we spot a business case, e.g. for the very sensible option of “growing the market”, in places where actual business people have not seen it? Maybe some of us can; and if so, let’s be sure to let them know!


  5. In the context of standardization, having been benefited by the precious views expressed by not only Mr. Simon Grant but also by Mr. Crispin Weston, a man like me feels that the views, though valuable, are loosing sight of the fact that “standardization” is not a thing to be imposed. One has to keep in mind the difference between socio economic problems of different sects of the societies and their behaviours towards realities. The standard defined by one community may not be so practicable for the other. Standards in different spheres of life are also different in different in different people. The standards of the people at the helm of affairs and their thinking can be quite different from the standards of the down-trodden classes of the society. The perfect understanding of the need of standardization also depends upon the education in the right way. The Authorities can prescribe standards and the proper implementation thereof depends upon the understanding of the interpreters and then upon the implementers and ultimately at the will the subjects whether they think the same proper or not. There is certainly a trichotomy of elements i.e. the prescribes, the implementers and the consumers or subjects. The field of Standardization is obviously not so easy but with better understanding of all ups and downs of the subject one can certainly cater for the need of all by showing flexibility and not regidness.

  6. I’ve removed the name, e-mail and web site of the comment above, but I thought it was such an impressive spam comment it deserved recognition. Dear spam commenter, you have spent a (relatively) long time on this, and you deserve credit!

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