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Plain Talk for a New Generation
The Changing World of International Standardization

The following is excerpted from a speech presented by James Thomas at the Open House for Asia Pacific Standards Leaders, held at ASTM International Headquarters on Sept. 23-24.

In the early 1900s, ASTM’s technical experts developed standards that were used in World War I: standards for the steel in tanks and ships, and standards for the concrete in fortresses on the Western Front. In the 1970s, they developed standards for dealing with oil spills. Before Sept. 11, 2001, however, they never dreamed they’d be called on to develop standards for homeland security. But that is what they are engaged in today. ASTM International has been dedicated to responding to this nation’s and the world’s needs for more than a century.

But our experts are not just dedicated to responding to crises. They are also dedicated to advancement and progress and the quality of life. And they, and we who serve them, are in the midst of great changes.

We are living in unpredictable, often bewildering times. We are clearly in a period of transition. We are moving rapidly out of an era where the diversity of nations’ regulations and standards are acceptable as part of the cost of doing business. At the same time, we have entered the era of the world market, a market that is calling for harmonization, globalization, efficiency, and speed. World traders are calling for “one standard, one test, accepted everywhere.” They want a passport standard that’s good at every port of entry. They want to eliminate redundancies and outrageous expense. But they still want the special standards that will give them an edge over their competitors. They still want a menu of standards from which they can choose to create success in a given situation. One standard, accepted everywhere, is not as simple as it sounds. It means different things to different people.

The world market is not a collection of homogeneous interests. It is rather like a puzzle, each national market a piece in its own right, each piece slightly or greatly different from the next, yet part of a global whole. The challenge to our industries is how to operate in this complicated universe. The challenge is ours as well. How are we to serve them?

I think there is only one way we can serve these industries. We answer the call and fill the needs that are put before us. At ASTM International that means we listen to the demands of the market through our members. If an industry needs a standard it can use in multiple markets we do not deny it the right to develop and use it. If it needs a standard to apply to one or two markets, we do not deny it the right to develop it and use it. That is not our job. It is not our job to decide market strategies for our members. That was never our charter.

What is our job, then? Our job is to create an atmosphere where our members can fulfill their standards objectives, achieve their standards goals, whatever they may be. Our job is to make standardization better, faster, cheaper. Our job is to help our members become what they want to become. At ASTM International that has meant, for instance, that we provide electronic tools that have revolutionalized international standardization, that we stay open 24 hours, seven days a week, that we work constantly to become the conduit for the development of the standards our members want.

We did not design the world market. But we do support it. And at ASTM International, the process for the development of standards is unlike others in the world. That is a fact. Our participation is direct, no delegations, no prerequisites. That is different. We are part of a global standardization system that has no national standards developing body. We are a choice, not an institution. That is different. We treat our government participants as equals. And they come as equals. That is different. Our business model is that of an enterprise. And that is different. And our different-ness is cause for debate and unrest in the global standards community.

And the market — what does it make of our difference? The market deals in reality. It chooses the standardization process that is most likely to make it successful. It has no other interest. It chooses the measures that promise the most in health and safety. It chooses the winning technology. Pragmatic above all, it cares little for structures and institutions. They are irrelevant to its success. The formation of consortia proved that to all of us. The market demands a product, pure and simple. It demands quality and relevance. And the job of standardization is to produce that product. That is its purpose. Its purpose is to cause success.

But while we do not dictate terms to the market, and while we do not deny it the right to develop the standards it needs, we do have certain responsibilities. We have a duty to uphold, and a contribution to make, to a liberalized trading system. We have a part to play. And that is to operate in accordance with the principles that promote fair trade: openness, transparency, impartiality, and consensus. These are words we all know, and principles we all have agreed to uphold. Our community has changed. But these principles have not. And our world will change again. And our standards community will change again. And these principles will be there to guide us through the next era, whatever that may be.

If our standards were the same today as they were 100 years ago, we would not be here. We would be history. We’re here because we changed. Standardization is synonymous with change. Our standards must be reviewed, revised, or revoked within a period of five years. Can we expect, then, that our standards system can continue to be viable without the same review and revision? We are nothing if we are not relevant. We, as members of the standards community, are the conduits of change. Standards and standardization are synonymous with change. Change is our job. And while we do not shy away from the debate that accompanies change, we understand that it is the pathway to evolution, and to progress.

James A. Thomas
President, ASTM

Copyright 2003, ASTM