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March/April 2009
PlainTalk

Here’s What We Know So Far

Here’s What We Know So Far

News of the global economy’s massive downturn has permeated our lives in recent months. Stories of financial instability and losses are everywhere we turn. A few days ago, ASTM International’s Chairman of the Board Paul Whitcraft and I were discussing this and the inevitable budget cuts that are taking slices out of corporate operations. People involved in standardization, he said, will have to work harder to make the value of the standards function understood. Anybody familiar with standards professionals will understand this approach. People who develop standards are in the business of finding solutions. The bigger the problem, the harder they work. It’s what they do.

Inspired by that, I decided to take a good, hard look at what else we know that is relevant to the problems facing corporations this year. How can standards functions figure into a company’s strategy for weathering the storm? Here’s what we know so far.

The process of developing standards involves interaction and direct contact with peers and competitors. Therein lies a great asset. While the development of a standard is by its very nature a technical activity, membership in the group also provides access to a larger world. Membership in a technical committee is a ringside seat to the state of the industry; it is being in the loop, understanding and anticipating influences and fluctuations in governments and markets. It’s the key to opportunities, present and future. It’s knowledge, pure and simple, an indispensible commodity in good times and bad. It is the antidote to technical and societal isolation in perilous times or booms. The people involved in this activity and those who understand it know that no matter what, this is not a corner to cut.

Investing in standardization is a choice made by companies that understand the importance of its long-term value; they understand that while some things can be sacrificed, values cannot; they know these sacrifices cannot be made at the heart of a company’s worth or the center of its progress. Standardization is not a marginal element of a business; it is a pillar.

As the global economy struggles, and companies make hard decisions, the standards function in a company becomes more important, not less. This is why: Trade has slowed; it has not stopped. Competition is still keen, maybe keener now. The fact is that no matter the level or pace, business is being conducted, and people are still buying and selling. There are areas where technology is still advancing and changing rapidly. And standardization remains the bedrock of it all because it is not an activity only for good times. It is for all times.

Increased efficiency, the reduction of waste, the saving of resources and better production methods are all achieved through the process of standardization. They are solutions, arrived at through the collective experience of a technical committee’s members. That’s what standard-ization is.

Over the years, ASTM members have shown us that there are times to work hard, and there are times to work harder. In the midst of the worst financial disaster in our history, representatives of DuPont, General Electric’s plastics department and other industry leaders formed a new committee — D20 on Plastics. The year was 1937. Countries around the world were in the throes of the Great Depression. A new industry was born anyway.

This is one of those moments in history when those who control the destinies of our industries must resolutely invest in the next generation of products and technology because it will arrive, ready or not. Through two World Wars and the Great Depression, the great men and women of ASTM never stopped working, never stopped developing ASTM standards. To those not familiar with this work or what it means, this may not sound like much. But we know better. We know that standards pulled us through, made our industries more efficient, gave us products and processes we had only dreamed of, solved the hard problems, eased trade around the world and rebuilt our economy time and time again. That’s what we know so far.

James A. Thomas
President, ASTM International

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