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FREE Sample Magazine (Type Mailing Address into E-mail Message) | President's Column Archive
 March 2005 Plain Talk for a New Generation
James Thomas, President, ASTM

E-mail your comments to Jim Thomas.

Go to other Plain Talk for a New Generation articles.


Harmonization is a word you hear a lot these days. Coming out of the new lexicon of global traders, harmonization is a flexible term, with meanings that are varied and many.

The WTO Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement, for instance, uses harmonization to mean internationalization. “With a view to harmonizing standards on as wide a basis as possible,” it asks its member countries’ standardizing bodies to play a full part in the preparation of international standards.

To some, harmonization means the wholesale adoption of international standards to replace national standards. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, for example, calls the adoption process the “internationally harmonized standards” approach.

And then there is the harmonization process whereby differing standards are examined by a technical committee with the hope that the differences can be identified, rationalized, and eventually converged. No matter how it is used, harmonization means one standard, the dream of companies that trade in multiple markets.

One of the mechanisms used to reach multiple markets is the use of national deviations. That’s when certain basic elements of two or more standards are combined, and from that base, deviations or enhancements are made to meet the needs of individual countries. The term harmonize applies here, too.

And then there is the international consensus approach that is used by ASTM International and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the creation of an international standard by a single technical committee with international input and an expected international application.

Worldwide agreement on definitions of safety, on the elements of design and performance, how these should be tested, and in which direction technology should and should not progress: Is this a pipe dream or is an ultimate consensus within reach? It has been done. Consider the World Wide Web Consortium’s Internet standards. The ISO quality management standards. The ASTM International aviation fuel standards. There are others. But not all that many. The fact is, full global harmonization is consensus on a very high level.

Regional or geographical harmonization is another approach, a piece of the pie with global aspirations. The European Union, in a monumental achievement, managed to harmonize a long list of standards from 15 nations, and last year the number of EU countries expanded to 25. But the Union also had to harmonize its laws and regulations, to give the standards a framework in which to operate. In 1992, the year of the formal union of the European member states, CANENA (the Council for Harmonization of Electrotechnical Standards of the Nations of the Americas) was also formed, with the goal of fostering the harmonization of electrotechnical product standards, conformity assessment test requirements, and electrical codes among all of the democracies of the western hemisphere.

Harmonization is a word that means different things to different people. At ASTM International, our committee members know that if their goal is to develop a standard through global participation intended for global use, that goal will be supported by the proper tools, by staff, and by policy. For next month’s issue of this magazine, the editor of SN, some of our staff managers, and I are collaborating to bring you the experiences of some of our ASTM International technical committees that have the development of a global standard as their goal. Their achievements are astounding and, I believe, will serve as practical examples of a few of the ways to achieve harmonization.

James A. Thomas
President, ASTM

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