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Is Anyone Listening Out There?

by Rob Steele

Is anyone actually listening out there?

I have had the privilege of being CEO at Standards New Zealand for the last three years. In that time we’ve reduced the average time it takes to produce a standard by two years; introduced electronic working for committees using SPEX; re-introduced seminars as an active way of telling those who use standards what’s actually available; and made a buck to start developing the long-term ability of the organization to stay in business. I’m lucky, the place has a superb team and this part has been the easy bit.

So what’s been hard? It’s been getting people to focus on the need for, and benefits of standards. So, being an accountant by training (yeah I know, I admit it) here are some stats that you might not have heard yet, or may have missed.

In Germany a study in 2000 showed:

1. Standardization has a positive effect on innovation, something that New Zealand should keep in mind when we talk about the Knowledge Economy and trumpet our innovative flair.
2. The economic benefit of standardization is approximately 1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Translate that to New Zealand and standardization is “worth” NZ $105 million (based on our 2001 GDP figure of NZ$105 billion).
3. Approximately 33 percent of GDP growth can be attributed to standardization. Translate that to New Zealand with a 2.5 percent GDP growth rate (annualized from the March 2002 quarter). Growth is a key issue for New Zealand as we fight our way back up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development competitiveness and wealth charts.
4. Standards contribute more to GDP than patents. Wow! How much does New Zealand business spend on establishing and protecting their intellectual property in what is a key asset of the knowledge economy?
5. Standards contribute to lower accident rates. This is obvious to some New Zealand agencies with responsibility in this sector; notably the Accident Compensation Corporation and the Ministry of Health, which are leading the way in providing funding for the development of key standards.

In the United Kingdom a study in 2000 showed:

1. Standardization can enable innovation and act as a barrier to undesirable outcomes. Ever wondered how a yacht designer would even start if there were no standards for nuts and bolts?
2. Standardization increases competition. Well, we like competition, especially if it’s against Australia, but we actually have 80 percent-plus alignment of standards with Australia. Why? It should assist trade.
3. Like the “hard” infrastructure (such as roads and railways) there is a strong public-good element to the standardization infrastructure. As a member of the public, when did you last give thought to the fact that wide entrances to public buildings help not only those in wheelchairs, but everyone else by making that entrance that much easier!
4. Participation from all interested parties in a standard enhances the value of that standard. Government balances participation by helping some smaller participants, and by acting as the representative of excluded interests.
5. The standards infrastructure needs to maintain both the infrastructure and the suite of standards. It’s no good having a standard on building materials if it doesn’t reflect generally accepted building practice or the materials now being used. This may require updating not only the standard on the building material, but also the method used for construction.
6. Standardization is a key factor in support of government policies, including competitiveness, innovation, reduction of trade barriers, fair-trading and protection of consumer interests, environmental protection and public procurement. Used in conjunction with health and safety and environmental legislation, standardization can also help governments promote better regulation.

In New Zealand a study in 2001 showed:

1. NZ $1 billion of export revenue is lost to New Zealand exporters every year through non-tariff barriers (and the Minister of Trade Negotiations Jim Sutton, said this figure was “very conservative” when he spoke at an event to mark publication of the findings of the survey).
2. One in five New Zealand exporters believes there has been an increase in non-tariff barriers over the last three years — suggesting some countries are becoming more protectionist, rather than less so.
3. Our most experienced and largest exporters identify non-tariff barriers as a serious impediment to maximizing trade opportunities.
So what?

Well standards actually add value to everyone. Of course I would say that! But the point here is that not only do people with a self-interest (i.e., me) say this, but it also shows up in respected surveys and comment from industry, governments, and consumers.

So, let’s be provocative here. If we accept all of the above then why is it so hard to get people interested in standardization? And why are there fewer and fewer people prepared to give their time to standards development activity with implications for resources for standards development programs, that are aimed at giving greater impetus to the benefits outlined above?

Because if you’re reading this then you’re likely to be one of the converted. How can we widen the clear message that standards actually add to innovation, they actually add to a country’s wealth, and they actually do help consumers?

The benefit from standards outweighs the costs. For example if the forthcoming standard on beach signage saves one person, what is that worth? If the standard on all terrain vehicle helmets saves even one life, what’s that worth?

If New Zealand input to an international standard increases market access for some of this country’s key or emerging exports, what is that worth?

What would happen if we didn’t have up-to-date standards on kitchen appliances to ensure safety, but also on ergonomics to make handling of appliances easier and safer for us all; what have the benefits been of having health and disability standards? Standards touch our lives literally in everything we do; there’s even a standard for condoms!

There is a wealth of evidence that standards add value. My question is how do we get this message across to the great majority who remain standards “agnostics”? I look forward to hearing your ideas. //

So do we at ASTM! Send your comments to Maryann Gorman (phone: 610/832-9606).

Copyright 2003, ASTM

Rob Steele is the chief executive officer of Standards New Zealand. He is a Chartered Accountant and member of the Institute of Directors. Rob has 23 years experience with a wide range of clients in New Zealand and Canada in corporate establishment and consulting including valuation, audit, and re-structuring. He also has director experience for a number of companies guiding them through establishment and growth phases of their development. Prior to becoming CEO of Standards New Zealand Rob was Chief Executive of an infrastructure company where re-engineering the business for high performance for customers and stakeholders using project management were a key objective. This organization subsequently won nationally recognized awards in customer service and quality. Since joining Standards New Zealand Rob has overseen a programme of re-structuring and re-engineering to improve customer service, increase value to government and key stakeholders and increase the profile of the organization in the development of standards both nationally and internationally. Use of project management in prioritising work has resulted in significant improvement in performance.