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January/February 2009
PerSpective

Benefits of Standards Development from a Macro Perspective

The Big-Picture View of Three ASTM Technical Committees

Homeland security. Nanotechnology. Sustainability. Denoting enormous concepts, each word implies relevance and also creates some confusion.

While the need for standards in such areas is obvious, the methods employed to achieve the desired results can vary considerably. In an organization as far-reaching as ASTM International, piecemeal work could take place among a diverse collection of technical committees, each with distinct (but possibly overlapping) scopes and divergent interests, representing competing industry sectors.

Certainly this approach would bear fruit; ASTM International combines unique breadth and depth within its committee population — few standards developing organizations share a greater degree of horizontal and vertical relevance. Yet within ASTM’s repository of content and knowledge, certain subject areas touch so many disciplines that an absence or lack of sufficient coordination can spell trouble for an activity almost before it gets started. It’s not that standards will not be developed, but those that emerge from the consensus process might suffer from jurisdictional disputes, insufficient resource allocation or an overly narrow scope
of review.

Within ASTM International, homeland security, nanotechnology and sustainability are supported by three macro committees. Committee E54 on Homeland Security Applications was organized in 2003; it supports a roster of 450 members and 11 subcommittees. Committee E56 on Nanotechnology was organized in 2005; it comprises 230 members and seven subcommittees. Committee E60 on Sustainability was formed in 2008; it has 440 members and four subcommittees.

Prior to the organization of E54, the standards portfolios of approximately six ASTM committees were evolving into the homeland security area. Relative to nanotechnology, roughly eight ASTM committees were engaged in the topic prior to the establishment of E56, and until the organization of E60, approximately 12 ASTM committees were either in the process of, or actively initiating, standards development for sustainable technologies and practices. There is no doubt that the pre-existing ASTM activities were successful to varying degrees; standards were developed, workshops were held, regulators were engaged and again, to varying degrees, needs were being met. But as these activities grew and the macro subject areas they operated within gained prominence and complexity on scales both national and global, their ability to be all they needed to be was occasionally compromised by their specificity.

The scope statements of E54, E56 and E60 each contain very similar language dealing with the concepts of coordination and resource provision.

  • Committee E54: The scope of the committee shall be . . . the coordination of existing ASTM standardization related to homeland security needs. This coordination shall include the apportioning of specific requests for homeland security standards through ASTM’s existing committee base, as well as the maintenance of appropriate liaison relationships with activities (internal and external) related to this subject area.
  • Committee E56: The scope of the committee shall be . . . the coordination of existing ASTM standardization related to nanotechnology needs. This coordination shall include the apportioning of specific requests for nanotechnology standards through ASTM’s existing committee base, as well as the maintenance of appropriate global liaison relationships with activities (internal and external) related to this subject area. The committee shall participate in the development of symposia, workshops and other related activities to enhance the development of standards.
  • Committee E60: This committee shall support and serve as a resource for other ASTM committees in their activities that include sustainability issues. This support may include dissemination of specific requests for standards throughout ASTM’s existing committee base, as well as the maintenance of appropriate liaison relationships (internal and external) related to this subject area. The committee will not duplicate the efforts of existing ASTM technical committees.

These main committees serve a crucial role; they provide an organizational focal point that attracts interest (and consequently, participation) from an extremely diverse collection of stakeholders. The committees also, given their breadth, offer a degree of objectivity and neutrality that has been beneficial to the more targeted and focused pre-existing ASTM activity within these subject areas.

In each case, we have seen a similar path unfold, with results clearly indicative of a two-way street. In some scenarios, existing ASTM International activity has migrated (with the consent of the parent committee) to the new main committee, citing a broader degree of stakeholder feedback, greater exposure or heightened “brand” recognition within the larger subject identification as reasons for the move. In other scenarios, requests for new activities have been submitted to the new main committees and subsequently forwarded to an existing ASTM activity for actual development due to pre-existing and ongoing work in the subject area or a collection of stakeholder groups already in place. The obvious synergy in these areas is beneficial to the stakeholders working within ASTM, the industries they serve and ASTM itself, with its goal of developing standards with the utmost technical quality and market relevance.

The marriage of the big and small pictures truly helps these activities succeed — a coordinated effort among a group of targeted and focused committees combined with a larger and more generically oriented activity that serves as the organizational focal point. Holding meetings at the same time and place where possible, appropriate liaison (both formal and informal), and consistent communication among the ASTM staff charged with the management of the activities can produce an environment where standards development can thrive.

Committees E54, E56 and E60 serve a very important function for ASTM International — they let the world know that ASTM is actively engaged in these subject areas from a perspective both targeted and strategic. While these committees in no way dictate activity in their respective subject areas across ASTM technical committees, they do have an important coordination role and the unique perspective of contemplating standards development with a broader lens than committees with a more concentrated perspective. The reality of subject areas such as these — homeland security, nanotechnology, sustainability — is that while success can be achieved by operating within individual industries, a more robust, and in many cases, more rapid solution can come about from keeping an eye on the big picture.

Pat Picariello is a director in the Technical Committee Operations division of ASTM International.