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The Evolving World of Global Standards

How Best to Meet the Needs of the Marketplace

ASTM President Jim Thomas presented this paper at the 10th International Conference of Standards Users (IFAN) in Berlin, Germany, in late September.

Fifty years ago, this conference would not have been possible. There was no global trading system as we know it today. Standards were developed largely for local consumption. But standardization is evolving; and we are evolving with it. The process of evolution calls upon us to unfold, to grow, to develop. It is the only way we will meet the needs of the greatest, most enticing marketplace in history.

It is a privilege to be in this room today with so many leaders in the field of standardization. I feel a kinship here that I feel in no other setting. We speak different languages, and yet we are able to understand one another perfectly. You know me and I know you because of what we do. We have come here today to share our experiences, because we want our work in the field of standardization to be more meaningful. We want it to have purpose and be useful.

We are part of the global marketplace. We are linked to it, we influence it, we serve it. We are bound, therefore, to evolve as it evolves. That means that we must accept change and, in fact, institute it. That is our business. It is our responsibility. That is what we are here to talk about today: how standardization is changing and evolving to meet the needs of a marketplace our forefathers could only imagine.

Let us consider first what has guided us unerringly in the past. Let us consider the intrinsic nature of standardization and the values that have sustained it throughout the process of evolution. Openness, transparency, and consensus have given our process integrity. Quality and relevance have given our standards substance and purpose. Openness, transparency, consensus, quality, and relevance: These are the values that define us. They are what we bring to the dynamics of trade.

A Time of Transition

Everyone in this room knows that a debate rages among us as to what constitutes an international standard. Many of today’s industrial leaders are indifferent to that debate, and the next generation will most likely find it irrelevant. Theirs will be a world of global commerce where the only thing that is important is whether or not a standard, whatever it is called, is meeting their needs. One day, our debate will be history.

We are clearly living in a time of transition. The debate is the clue. It is merely the symptom of change. The ideas we hold so dear, our views of the world, everything we are doing and have done will give way to the future. How well equipped are we to cope with evolution?

This is the question we in ASTM are asking ourselves and I am very pleased to be able to share our ideas with you at this conference, because we will all be in the same future. It begins now, of course, and we are living in a world that has grown smaller than any of us ever thought it would. We are related to one another whether we want to be or not.

Global commerce has related us. Our work now serves a marketplace created by mind-boggling technology, by international mergers, and companies whose nationalities are barely distinguishable. We are all challenged to serve that marketplace; and if we don’t, it won’t matter how we develop our standards, or from what development center they issue. When I first began to work in this field, there were no consortia developing standards. Consortia were created by people whose needs were not being met.

Customer Needs

No matter how we see the process of standardization, meeting the needs of users must be our primary mission. The most challenging reality of meeting needs is the constant evolution of expectations. Customers’ needs are not static. They are moving targets; and it takes resources to meet them. That is the other reality; and it is faced by every standards developing organization in the world. It takes resources to provide new technologies for developing and delivering standards. It takes resources to be efficient. No matter how our standards are developed, and what our differences may be, we must all have resources to provide our services.

We do this in various ways. In the United States, standards organizations have funding mechanisms that run the gamut from membership dues to government subsidies, to certification fees, to the sale of documents, to creative combinations of these. We feel very fortunate that we are able to choose the one that serves us best. The business model ASTM uses 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, chosen for its many advantages. A business model such as this aligns standardization philosophically and practically with enterprise, in that survival depends on management, opportunity, and the quality of the product.

ASTM also makes participation easy. It admits technical experts from companies all over the world. Our international membership is growing; and as the nationalities of global companies become less distinguishable, so it is with many of our technical committees. They can no longer be characterized as American. They are citizens of the global marketplace.

Standardization in ASTM is not driven or shaped by political aims. There is no government subsidy, no government overview, no direction, no special status. Government experts are members of technical committees. They are equals and part of the consensus, nothing more, nothing less.

Government is a partner and a user. In 1995, the U.S. Congress enacted a law (1) that mandates the federal use of standards developed by private consensus organizations to meet regulatory and procurement needs. It obliges federal agencies to consult with voluntary consensus standards bodies and participate with them in the development of standards. This has already made government regulation and procurement more efficient—and more global. International technologies, through standardization, are used by government and adopted into U.S. regulations. For those who take advantage of it, this kind of standardization is a global trade dream come true, an unparalleled opportunity. These same standards can be, and are adopted into the regulations of other countries. Standardization, then, begins to globalize regulation, solving one of the thorniest problems of the global marketplace.

Have all of these things had a real impact? The alignment of marketplace needs, regulation, and standardization has produced a widespread use of ASTM standards. They are used all over the world, in regulations, in procurement contracts, in laboratories, and in manufacturing. They are part of the global marketplace.

ASTM is also a staunch supporter of ISO [International Organization for Standardization], investing resources, both financial and human, in the support of ISO Technical Advisory Groups. It supports over two-thirds of all U.S TAGs because for some ASTM global company members, ISO is the chosen path to world trade. We honor that decision and support it. We believe that all choices are valid.

Many Ways to Make a Standard
We know that we are different. In the United States there is no such thing as one national standards developing body. Our standards are developed in bodies that specialize along sector lines. This alone makes us different. Our standards organizations are open to everyone in the world, and this, too, makes us different. Sometimes we are not well understood by the rest of the world. That is why speaking here today is an unexpected opportunity and why I accepted the invitation with such enthusiasm. It is difficult for our colleagues in world organizations to understand why we say that the standards we develop are international. At first glance, this may seem pretentious, when actually it is simply an acknowledgement based on participation and use. The global marketplace is opportunistic. When it chooses ASTM, we serve it. It is our job. It is our responsibility.

I can only speak for the organization I serve, but I should like to say this clearly: we do not deny the worth of other standardization systems, nor do we denigrate them. We do not believe that our way, or any one way, is the only way to global trade without barriers. We hear the cry for “one standard, accepted everywhere,” and we understand it. But the world, as small as it has become, is still diverse. There is no one body of standards today that is accepted everywhere, and those of us in this room may not live to see such a thing come to pass. In the meantime, we have today’s global market and its needs to meet. We must answer its call, watch it, understand it, evolve as it evolves. It is our job. It is our responsibility.

And that means that we must look to our values. I believe that “quality and relevance, accepted everywhere” is the mantra of the possible, the present, and the future. Organizations will come and go, shift and transform. Debates will rage and be forgotten. Worldviews will change and politics will align and realign. But with our values to uphold us, we may yet build a world where standardization rises above nationalities, where science is safely out of the reach of politics, where universal interests and higher ideals replace provincial biases, and where trade flows freely and unhindered throughout a global marketplace.

James A. Thomas
President, ASTM

(1) The National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act of 1995

Copyright 2001, ASTM

James Thomas
President, ASTM

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