Standards for the Global Marketplace
An Interview with ASTM International President James A. Thomas
From the perspective of his tenure as ASTM International president and longtime staff member, and his expertise in voluntary consensus standards development, Jim Thomas talks about how ASTM’s dedicated volunteer members, streamlined standards-development process and strategic goals converge to create globally relevant standards.
What attributes distinguish ASTM International and make it the organization it is today?
The attribute that immediately leaps to mind is our volunteer members. ASTM is a dynamic organization because of our technical experts from more than 130 countries — their unique qualifications and their desire and willingness to engage in a process that achieves consensus among diverse stakeholders. ASTM delights in these individuals and can’t say enough good things about them.
The second attribute that comes to mind is the close cooperation between these volunteers and the ASTM staff. We understand our volunteers’ goals and objectives. Staff’s number one goal is to provide a level of service excellence that enables our volunteers to achieve their standardization objectives in the most efficient, cost-effective way possible. One of our major ways of achieving this has been to reduce the administrative burden on our member experts. I see that as one of the areas that ASTM excels in: over time, with the support of the ASTM board of directors, we have been dedicated to implementing technologies and providing other support that make ASTM a very appealing place for industry, government and other diverse stakeholders to achieve their standardization objectives. Use of technology also enables our far-flung members to easily participate, allows all to read and review standards actions, which in turn increases the transparency of our process.
Finally, because of ASTM’s longevity and success, we are able to create and ensure technically relevant and accurate standards. One of ASTM’s most important strengths is our significant library of test methods. ASTM has roughly 12,000 standards and close to 6,000 of those are test methods. Through its commitment to the statistical validity of those test methods, ASTM has uniquely positioned itself in the global standardization community. To ensure this statistical validity, the ASTM board established an interlaboratory study program that enables users to have confidence when using ASTM methods.
In your April 2002 “Plain Talk” column, you wrote, “Globalization is not a new concept here. It’s just intensified. Its growing importance is directly related to the growth of the globalization of industry, of our members.” What, today, is your sense of ASTM’s place in our global marketplace?
I’d say that ASTM’s position right now is as strong as it has ever been in the global marketplace: the level of standards used as national adoptions in countries throughout the world continues to grow. ASTM standards are extensively referenced in legislation and regulations both inside and outside the U.S. We continually get requests from governments and organizations from outside the U.S. to utilize ASTM standards.
From a technical standpoint, ASTM standards are highly regarded and extensively used throughout the world. We see continued growth in the distribution of ASTM’s technical information outside the U.S. And we see continued growth in our membership from outside the U.S.
From my first days at ASTM — I joined the staff back in 1972 — I saw ASTM as an organization with a worldwide impact, committed to developing standards for the global marketplace. ASTM technical experts from many occupations and backgrounds, including a great number of participants from outside the U.S., have always made significant contributions to the content of ASTM’s globally used standards. I believe that to be one of our great advantages: our standards really reflect what the global marketplace wants. Our members introduce the state of the art, one that is not just U.S.-based or U.S.-centric, but something that has application throughout the world. That continues today.
But one of the challenges that we face today is the suggestion or view that only certain organizations can create or be the source of international standards. ASTM is compliant with the principles contained in the Second Triennial Review of the Operation and Implementation of the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade, which outlines the principles that an organization must comply with to be considered a developer of international standards. ASTM standards are used, referenced and cited around the world. Yet some believe that this is not enough.
At times, it is the politics of standardization that are problematic and can create barriers to the use of ASTM standards. I’ve never heard ASTM standards challenged for their technical quality or for their market relevance. What I have heard is a debate that centers on whether or not the label on a particular standard is appropriate and acceptable based on the political strategies that exist in different parts of the world. I have frequently been told that a different logo — on a technically identical standard — would permit that standard to be used. Our challenge has been to identify those issues and work to reduce barriers to the use of ASTM standards — as ASTM standards. Where we are successful in doing that, we see a continued extensive use of ASTM standards.
But even with political issues to address, industries around the world find ways to use ASTM standards because the standards represent what they want — technical quality, market relevance and the ability to engage in global trade.
ASTM International has made a commitment to increase its involvement with relevant European groups and broaden Europe’s awareness of ASTM. How does ASTM plan to accomplish this goal and why is a greater European presence important to the organization?
We have been fortunate to have a very supportive board of directors who see the value in ASTM’s continued growth in major markets of the world. We have had significant success in China and elsewhere because of a desire by industries in those countries to use ASTM standards as the basis for their trade objectives.
In Europe we have been faced for many years with a standardization strategy focused on a particular system of standardization, and there have been occasions where the use of ASTM standards has been restricted because of Europe’s commitment to use standards from very specific sources. In fact, there has been reluctance by Europe to accept ASTM standards as international standards. This pertains not only to industry attitudes but also government policy on the use of ASTM standards within government regulations or directives that control the European environment.
Our goal in Europe is to increase the level of our communication with both European government and European industry. We need to understand the realities of the European regulatory environment, to understand whether or not the restrictions on the use of ASTM standards are real and, if so, to identify how government regulations preclude the use of ASTM standards — and of course try to do something about it. We would like to have the opportunity to engage in dialogue that may improve European awareness of ASTM and increase the awareness of how ASTM standards can assist Europe in achieving its goals of improved quality of life, health and safety, and better service and products for its population.
We plan to meet that goal with the support of an organization in Brussels that will assist us in crafting and delivering a communication plan over the next several years.
Through the Washington, D.C., office, you have increased staff interaction with U.S. government officials, informing them about ASTM’s role in international standardization and seeking input about trade-related and standards issues. What are those issues and how could government respond to positively impact ASTM International and other U.S.-based standards development organizations?
We made a conscious decision a few years ago to strengthen our engagement in Washington, D.C., by reopening a full-time office there, and the office has been so successful that we have recently added another staff member there.
Our engagement includes addressing trade and regulatory issues and expanding our interactions with U.S. government representatives. ASTM is engaged with the U.S. Trade Representative and other agencies in the U.S. government to promote the realization that TBT language is not restricted to specific organizations. Rather, compliance with TBT principles identifies an organization as capable of developing international standards.
We rely on our trade negotiators to ensure that the TBT language is clearly understood during treaty negotiations and that the reality about the TBT principles is expressed to delegations from other countries that may not so readily embrace the multiple paths concept of global standardization.
What do you mean by “multiple paths”?
There is no single organization that is the only source of international standards, that has the most technically up-to-date and market-relevant solutions for an industry or government. In the multiple paths approach, we recognize that there are different ways of developing, and different sources of, international standards. We look at the process by which the document was developed, the way in which the resulting standards are applied and used in the marketplace, to demonstrate their international acceptability.
We continue to promote the multiple paths concept. Our members expect that, after they have dedicated themselves to developing high quality ASTM standards, there should be no barriers to the use of those standards around the world. A high priority for ASTM’s management and its board is to identify where those barriers exist and to work to reduce barriers to the broad-based application of ASTM standards.
As part of its global outreach, ASTM International has signed MOUs with 58 standards bodies worldwide in support of the standards needs of the signatory groups. What progress is being made based on these MOUs and what are some recent program highlights?
Several years ago, ASTM wanted to put a program in place for developing nations that could benefit from the use of our vast numbers of technical standards and help advance their economies and improve their citizens’ overall quality of life. Many of these countries have certain needs for which standards can produce results quickly. In many areas there is a high demand for standards addressing basic infrastructure — roads, construction products and other standards that impact daily life. ASTM has high quality standards in those areas.
The MOU program makes these standards available to those countries, and more important, encourages direct participation of technical experts from our MOU partners. In addition to providing copies of our standards at no cost to MOU countries, we also offer committee membership at no cost to their technical experts. Our view is that if we expect countries to use ASTM standards, we need to ensure that they have a voice in their development, that they have the ability to engage in the process and to offer suggestions for developing standards that reflect their specific needs. We see the use of ASTM standards in these countries growing and an increased number of technical experts from those countries joining ASTM committees.
We also find that there is a significant amount of interest in training. One development this year is that ASTM’s board has approved funding for technical assistance programs in 20 of our MOU partner countries, which is exciting because it brings together ASTM standards with the specific needs of that country. We’re doing training programs in statistics, the environment, petroleum, steel, concrete, cement and other areas. The training program is responsive to what developing countries need; they’re looking for the ability to continue to grow in their knowledge, to grow in their ability to expand their program areas and to benefit from work already done.
Another thing we have done is start a Standards Executive Exchange Program, whereby every year we invite to ASTM, for about a five-week program, representatives from three of our MOU partners. The standards executives get an in-depth introduction to the ASTM standards development process and the electronic tools to do that as well as exposure to other U.S. standards developers. Each time we feel enriched by the experience. We build relationships, and those relationships are the key to bringing together the diverse elements of the global standards community. This year we’ll have representatives visit from Korea, Zimbabwe and Peru.
The U.S. Standards Strategy, a revision of the National Standards Strategy originally approved in 2000, has been out since 2005. How is this framework important and what effect has it had on U.S. business and standardization?
I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to work with people from all segments of the U.S. standards community in developing a standards strategy.
The U.S. Standards Strategy helps focus attention on the important role that standards play in trade. It also helps focus our discussions around subjects important to both government and industry, and it enables the U.S. to communicate the qualities of its standards system and, in some cases, the differences that exist in the U.S. standards system from other parts of the world. The U.S. standards system is very sector focused, and we do not embrace any one single approach to standards development but rather rely on a public and private partnership to create the success we have enjoyed for many years.
The U.S. standards system is one of the most dynamic and responsive systems in the world. It’s timely. It’s effective. It’s open and transparent. And the U.S. Standards Strategy focuses on the strengths of the U.S. standards system while at the same time accepting the fact that the U.S. system is part of a larger global system. There’s recognition of the value of active participation in standardization programs in multiple organizations as well as of the fact that there is no single path to developing international standards.
The strategy makes clear that there is a dynamic and diverse global standardization system, and standards emanating from multiple sources can in fact meet the global requirements or expectations of industry. Through the American National Standards Institute, where I’m fortunate to serve as vice chairman, we have seen significant advances in the understanding of the dynamics of the U.S. standards system and the promotion of the multiple paths concept for developing international standards.
What actions is ASTM taking, or planning, in its ongoing work of streamlining the standards development process?
ASTM has heard the frequently expressed concern that the standards development process is too slow and taken it on as a challenge. What we do is constantly review ASTM balloting procedures to ensure that each step in the process is required, that there are no redundancies and that we take advantage of all existing technologies to help accelerate the standards development process.
We are constantly investing in new technology to assist technical committees in expediting and accelerating standards development. Over my time at ASTM, we have gone from counting ballots by hand to an electronic balloting system that can support 140 different technical committees and more than 2,000 subcommittees. We have truly created a digital path for ASTM standards development, one that, from inception to final publication, captures the information electronically. That has helped reduce barriers to participation in ASTM. There’s no time zone impact when ballots are delivered electronically. We have been able to meet the needs of a diverse group of stakeholders to develop standards in a timely fashion. While the more typical turnaround time to develop and approve new standards is 17 months, the process can take as little as six months.
There are two major fronts on which ASTM International and other standards developers are attempting to protect their intellectual property: digital rights management and managing the flow of their standards to other organizations that would like to adapt or adopt them. How is ASTM managing these challenges?
ASTM supports the use of its intellectual property by other organizations that perceive value in utilizing ASTM standards as the basis for their work. However, we need to establish appropriate parameters for the use of ASTM’s intellectual property, and we’re willing to work with any organization to establish a relationship whereby ASTM intellectual property can serve as a basis for work that is anticipated or planned by other organizations.
It is a challenge for organizations like ASTM to protect their intellectual property. Often, other organizations and other countries don’t fully appreciate the challenges that ASTM’s funding model presents. Our members, through their ASTM board representatives, have made a conscious choice that funding the ASTM process, the development of ASTM standards, will be borne by those using the standards. That is, we are funded primarily by the sale of copyrighted standards.
We have debated internally about digital rights management, but we feel to implement a full array of digital rights management functionality would be a disservice to legitimate users of ASTM standards and add an unnecessary level of complexity to using our standards. Instead, ASTM has engaged in a program of education and of informing people when we identify them as misusing our intellectual property. We have a program of contacting them, interacting with them and encouraging them to cease and desist. In more than 95 percent of the cases those whom we contact are very appreciative and apologetic and correct the situation. In cases where they refuse, ASTM will use any means available to prevent misuse of our intellectual property.
Our interaction with other organizations about the use of our intellectual property is on a case by case basis because each one has different needs. We’re willing to work with them and to share our intellectual property, but we’re not able to give it away.
Speaking from your many years in standards, are you optimistic about the future for ASTM International? How do you see it positioned? What decisions will help point us to a successful future?
I’ve been at ASTM for 36 years and I’ve been president since 1992. I’ve witnessed a lot of significant changes and great accomplishments during my time here at ASTM. I see the organization’s future as extremely bright because it continues to attract motivated volunteer experts and to produce high quality technical standards that have significant market relevance and are essential to industry success on a worldwide basis.
I am excited about ASTM’s future because I see the enthusiasm and energy of a board of directors and staff that is unparalleled based on my travels around the world. I see a commitment on the part of the board to support the work of the technical committees and do whatever is necessary to reduce the burden on the volunteer. I see a commitment by the ASTM board to invest resources on expanding our reach globally and representing the excellence of the organization throughout the world. I see staff’s enthusiasm for achieving excellence so that we can continue to provide new services and exciting new opportunities for the dissemination and delivery of ASTM intellectual property.
There are board decisions for ASTM that will be important — for example, about our IP and its use and protection and how we’re going to promote ASTM’s image around the world. Based on their prior performance, I believe the board will continue to do what it takes to position ASTM International as a true leader in the global standards community.
And I see ASTM’s future as very bright because of continued growth in our technical committee membership, with new people from a variety of technical areas coming to ASTM and initiating activities for standards that are needed in today’s world. These members have new ideas and new visions and new excitement for what ASTM does, which will propel the organization forward.
James A. Thomas is president of ASTM International, one of the world’s largest organizations for the development of international voluntary consensus standards. His professional career is concentrated on association management and the issues facing voluntary standardization.
Thomas began his career at ASTM International in 1972. He served in positions of increasing responsibility and in 1983 he was promoted to vice president, standards development. In this position, he was responsible for all ASTM technical committee operations, including guiding new technical committees in the early stages of their development and representing ASTM International in standards development activities with other organizations.
In 1987, Thomas was appointed executive vice president of the society. His responsibilities included directing the development and implementation of operating policies, and the analysis and evaluation of operations to assess the attainment of growth and financial objectives. In 1992, Thomas was named ASTM president.
Thomas is a member of the Standards Engineering Society, which awarded him the Leo B. Moore Medal in 2004; the Council of Engineering and Scientific Society Executives; the American Society of Association Executives and the Industry Trade Advisory Committee on Standards and Technical Trade Barriers.
Thomas is a vice chairman of the American National Standards Institute board of directors and serves on the board of directors of the Clinical and Laboratory Standards Institute.