What ASTM International Stands For
I sing in my church choir. Like most choirs I’ve been with, the members not only enjoy singing but also genuinely enjoy each other. And of course, you know you’re “in” when the other choir members feel comfortable teasing you. So, on a Thursday evening early this year, shortly after publication of the SN issue with my interview and picture on the cover, I arrived at rehearsal to find it posted on the bulletin board. I received the requisite teasing about being a cover model, asking where the centerfold was, and asking me for autographs. It was all in good fun. Harley Hopkins, a longtime ASTM International member and a manager in regulatory and scientific affairs at the American Petroleum Institute, had given his wife Carol Bowers, director of the Geo-Institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers and a soprano in our choir, a copy of the issue — which she brought to rehearsal.
Carol and Harley know about ASTM. But after the teasing was over, the article prompted a lot of people to ask, “What does ASTM stand for?” During my term as chairman of the board this year, I had heard our president, Jim Thomas, asked this question a few times, and I had pretty much adopted his answer. The letters “ASTM” used to stand for the American Society for Testing and Materials. But the truth is, that is pretty misleading.
ASTM International is not, and hasn’t been for many decades, just American. ASTM has members from more than 120 nations around the world, and about one of every five members lives outside the United States. ASTM standards are widely used around the world in many applications.
ASTM is not a “society” in the traditional sense. We are not a collection of a particular kind of engineer or scientist, or any other profession. ASTM membership is open to anyone who has an interest in any of the wide array of topics on which ASTM committees develop standards.
ASTM International does no testing. While we have an impressive library of test method standards, we are not a society of testers. And lastly, while ASTM built its early reputation on standards for basic materials, the portfolio now includes so many things beyond materials that any implication that we have limited our scope in this way is simply incorrect.
I have used this kind of description many times to help people understand a little about ASTM International. Recently, however, I began to think about addressing this from a somewhat different angle. The other side of this question has nothing to do with what the letters signify; it invites a more thoughtful treatment of what principles, standards and concepts the organization known as ASTM does stand for.
First, ASTM International stands for fidelity to its mission. In case you haven’t looked at it in a while, here it is: “To be the foremost developer and provider of voluntary consensus standards, related technical information and services having globally recognized quality and applicability that:
- Promote public health and safety, the environment and the overall quality of life;
- Contribute to the reliability of materials, products, systems and services; and
- Facilitate international, regional and national commerce.”
As a member of ASTM International’s board of directors for seven years, and of the executive committee for the past four, I can tell you that when discussions arise about whether ASTM should embrace some new activity or whether we should limit some activity, they center around our mission. There are, as there should be, discussions of financial impacts and the possible risk involved, but in the end it is the mission that rules.
I spent one year as chairman of ASTM’s finance and audit committee, and while I didn’t expect anything different, that experience reinforced the belief that ASTM stands for integrity — in everything. Its business processes are based on ethical principles just as surely as they are based on good accounting practices. Those processes and practices are independently audited both by a respected outside accounting firm and by an F&A committee that operates independently of staff influence.
ASTM International is also a responsible corporate entity. There is a long list of organizations to which, each year, ASTM gives money, equipment, meeting space and of course, standards — because both the staff and the board think it is important to do so. Contributions go to local, national and international civic organizations and to the town government of West Conshohocken, Pa., where ASTM has its headquarters. Standards have been donated for Iraq reconstruction, the Conshohocken Free Library, and construction efforts in Lebanon, just to name a few.
ASTM International has an excellent staff. I work with many standards organizations and it would be insulting to the dozens of brilliant, innovative, talented and committed staffs of the other organizations for me to say that ASTM’s staff is the best. However, I haven’t found any better. This is a group of dedicated professionals who routinely excel. But they couldn’t be as productive as they are unless management created the atmosphere to encourage them. Both staff management and the board foster and reward hard work, innovation and risk taking in furthering ASTM’s mission.
ASTM International believes in member leadership. As a member of the board of directors, I have seen the quality of member leaders who come to the board to participate in the guidance and direction of the organization. This is an organization led by a strong executive, and an executive who is led by a strong board.
But, at the most basic level, ASTM International is all about the standards — their creation, their quality and their distribution.
ASTM International has perhaps the most user-friendly and technologically advanced suite of tools available anywhere to support the thousands of members who gather under our banner to write standards. As I write this, I’m on my way to my sixth committee week as chairman of the board, and what I see at these meetings is a member support system that is unsurpassed. This organization works very hard to stay at the forefront of every kind of support that a member could want, whether it is technological tools, access to editors and reference materials, meeting and new activity support, or anything else that members need to make development, coordination and completion of ASTM standards as easy as possible.
ASTM International believes in and supports the basic tenets of openness, fairness, inclusiveness and participation by all stakeholders. These foundational tenets mean that all affected parties can come to the table and have their views heard, considered and fairly dealt with. And, if at any time participants feel they have not been fairly dealt with, a well-defined appeals process ensures them due process.
ASTM stands for quality and technical excellence. The standards produced by ASTM committees represent the collective judgment of technical experts, manufacturers, users, academicians, public interests, quality assurance professionals, consumers and an endless list of other stakeholders. The proof is in the use — ASTM standards are adopted and used by top-quality manufacturers, users and buyers of all kinds of products; by federal, state and local regulators; by other standards and code development organizations and by dozens of nations.
And when it comes to making ASTM International standards available to its customers, ASTM once again stands out. Standards are available in paper when that is the medium of choice, in electronic form, on CD, in collections, through enterprise-wide subscription and through third-party providers. Flexibility is the code word in finding ways to meet customer demand.
As document locking has become more prevalent in the electronic publishing world, ASTM International has demurred, preferring to keep documents easy for customers to use. It is the judgment of ASTM management that digital rights management software, at least as it exists today, causes too many problems for users, and that is antithetical to customer service. ASTM aggressively protects its intellectual property, but it does so based on the precept that customers are honest and want to do the right thing.
My list could go on, but it doesn’t need to. What does ASTM International really stand for? It stands for being the best. Whether it is a question of integrity, fidelity to mission, corporate responsibility, staff, leadership, standards development, standards, member support, distribution — the answer is always the same. ASTM either is the best, or is among the best.
There is one other thing that ASTM International does extremely well — and that is to stay alert and maneuver. I take these words from a briefing slide I once saw. An admiral was talking about responding to world conditions, and the words on his slide were, “There are no permanent victories — to win one must stay alert and maneuver!” It is a truism in war, in life, in business and in technology. It is no less true in the standards world, and we do it very, very well.//