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Plain Talk for a New Generation
A Matter of Choice

Good standards organizations are like fine watchmakers. The watchmaker’s business is to create a quality timepiece, to know all its components from start to finish, to understand its intricacies, inside out and upside down. The wearer, on the other hand, or the user, is not so much concerned with why or how the watch continues to tick or give the accurate time, so long as it does. Therein lies the similarity.

Like watches, standards are products the inner workings of which are largely invisible, the design, production, and maintenance of which is left to the province of specialists. If both businesses do their jobs well, their customers stand to benefit from a quality product at an affordable price. Interestingly enough, it is here that we reach a point of divergence. There is no cry among the users of watches that watches should be free. I have heard this, however, said of standards. This idea deserves exploration.

Let’s start by taking a look at the standards factory. It is exactly like a company or government agency in the sense that it functions like a business. It employs people, operates within a budget, manages a production line, and delivers a service. “But wait,” say some users. “We are part of the work force. Then we have to buy the standards we help create.” Exactly. That is why they are called stakeholders. Companies call them stockholders. Government agencies call them advisors. Advisors pay taxes, stockholders buy products, and stakeholders buy standards; but they are not mere customers. They are investors. The return on their investment is a product that reflects their desires and furthers their own business goals.

Like any business, if a standards organization is going to be viable, it will operate according to a well-thought-out plan, or business model. There are various models, but every model has one thing in common, one indispensable factor: a well-defined source of revenue. Government agencies are supported by taxes, companies by profits from the sale of goods. And standards developing organizations? Their models and sources run the gamut—from membership dues to government subsidies, to certification fees, to the sale of documents, to creative combinations of these. Look to each standards organization for its model. But understand that while documents may be “free,” standards have to be made, like watches.

The question is not one of free standards. That is only a piece of the puzzle, a variable that must be factored into a larger plan. The ASTM business model designates the sale of documents as the source for the greater part of its revenue. The adoption of this model was a conscious corporate decision, a model chosen for its many advantages. Tested and not found wanting, it has made ASTM one of the most financially stable organizations of its kind. That is not to say that the idea of different funding mechanisms for different deliverables is not worth discussion. It is. The broader issue of fiscal policy, however, is universal. No standards organization in the world can avoid it; no standardization system in the world can operate without resolving it. Fortunately, in the United States, it’s a matter of choice.

James A. Thomas
President, ASTM

Copyright 2001, ASTM

James Thomas President, ASTM

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