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March/April 2009

The Reality Behind “One Standard”

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

The following is excerpted from James Matthews’ opening speech at the American National Standards Institute’s Supporting Transatlantic Trade Conference, held in Washington, D.C., in September 2008.*

No two sectors of industry and trade face the same circumstances. Some are highly regulated and involve extensive issues of public health and safety while others involve lightly regulated activities and serve mainly to form the basis for trade and commerce. And there’s a lot in between. Some sectors are challenged by mature technologies and others are challenged with fast-emerging technologies and rapidly changing markets. One size doesn’t really fit all.

In industry, we often say we want “one standard, one test, accepted everywhere.” You’ve heard that many times from many places. And it’s also used to describe the ideal situation. It’s a lot like those of us who are engineers and want to describe the ideal battery that never loses power, the ideal lamp that never burns out and the ideal wires that never have any loss. While that represents the ideal, let’s explore the real world that we all have to operate in. That “one standard” is a lot more elusive than we think.

Many people think one standard means one International Organization for Standardization (ISO), International Electrotechnical Commission or International Telecommunication Union standard or recommendation, and many times that’s really the case. That’s the practical result that many of us expect in order to get a standard at the international level through those organizations. But we also know that some sectors of industry choose a particular venue other than these three for the sake of efficiency or for the consideration of standards that matter to their industry sector. The aerospace industry is a good example of that. Some industries and markets are driven by rapid technology changes, so standards are developed on an ad-hoc or consortia basis, driven by speed-to-market. And in today’s market there are many choices.

The Only Standard That Matters

While one standard is an ideal, the reality is that this one standard can come from a wide range of places. No single organization or standards body fits the needs for everybody all the time. When I am asked which one of the many possible standards our businesses should use, I do have a ready answer that I can guarantee is always 100 percent accurate — what I say is that the only standard that really matters is the one that our customer specifies and uses. That standard can be a national standard, a global standard or a regional standard, but the important bottom line is that we have to meet that customer’s expectations.

The second important point about the mythical one standard is that customers are different, and they value different things when it comes to purchasing similar products. Functionality, versatility, reliability, first costs, life costs and many other things are all weighted differently in the customer’s philosophy. So the priorities and the choices made in creating a specification or making a purchase decision result in different standards or expressions of the same standard because of those differences.

A third point about the mythical one standard is that it’s often assumed to be a box that’s checked off. It’s a destination. It’s a point in space. And really, instead of a destination, I suggest to you that it is more of a journey. Because historically, technical standards were often written once a technology was mature, and the market choices had been made, and it served really only to document the history of that technology. And when that happens, we in industry and the market are not well served. That type of standard also begins to stifle innovation and new technologies, and it’s wrapped around a single solution.

Today however, I’m happy to say there’s a new paradigm. Products change and evolve through their life cycles, markets emerge and evolve, and new technologies and new materials come, bringing function and value and reliability to the users. The concept of “one standard” also has to change with time. It starts with a loose set of essential requirements. But, as time passes, it gets updated and evolves and, in a sense, shrink-wraps around the consensus solution for that application and that market. So, it is a dynamic standard over its useful life.

The Value of Varied Venues

Often companies say they want one standard, but fail to do just that. Companies could put resources into one venue and designate that as the venue of choice to accomplish the standards writing. And this would nurture the chosen venue and effectively starve other venues from lack of resources. However, that desert-and-oasis approach is rarely used in the real world. Why is that? Well, for several reasons.

First, it’s not easy to get all the stakeholders to agree that that standard is the standard or this standard is the one.

Another reason is that if a faction loses out in one standards body, sometimes they’ll go to an alternative body and seek to write a standard embracing their choice.

Another reason is speed-to-market. One group thinks Path A is faster. One group thinks Path B is faster. They go their separate ways and conclude with two standards for the same activity.

The final point regards legacy venues and competing technologies. One industry traditionally uses a specific venue and path and another uses a different one. As technologies converge, these paths join together and competing standards emerge through different venues addressing the same applications or products. You see this today in some aspects of telecommunications, information technology and consumer electronics.

Characteristics of Efficient Standards

The bottom line for industry is that, while we say “one standard,” we regularly and readily give resources to numerous alternatives for a lot of the reasons we previously cited. But in the end it seems to be better to have multiple standards than to ignore venues where your competitor may disadvantage your products. So you have to go there. As we say: “You must be present to win.”

So one standard really means as few standards as possible, from any venue valued by users and customers, and one that continues as a dynamic rather than a fixed standard.

If that describes the one standard, it is also worth taking a few minutes to discuss the essential characteristics that a standards venue should have in order to develop an efficient standard for industry. I want to share with you six essentials that I think are important.

Number one is flexibility — allow the standards-making process to change and evolve as products and markets go through the life cycle. Having a variety of deliverables and alternatives with a range of speeds and levels of consensus ensures that the appropriate tool can be chosen from the toolbox.

The second essential is what I call a quality consensus. By quality consensus, I mean the ability for consensus to be reached on a globally relevant level. Where the market is addressed by a single solution, the needs of all markets are reflected in the standard describing that solution. Where the market is addressed by different solutions representing real differences due to, say, technical infrastructure or climatic reasons, those solutions should be fully embraced on a parity level in the standard. And I mean that on a global level, the standard is not hijacked and held hostage by one interest group to the disadvantage of other regions or other technology solutions that are recognized and legitimate in the markets they serve.

The third essential is openness and accessibility. New markets and technologies bring new players. Standards venues have to be open and accessible to small, medium and large enterprises, with barriers to entry as low as possible, allowing them to function effectively.

The fourth essential is diversity. Good standards come from having the broadest range of stakeholders at the table. These stakeholders have to represent the users and producers, they have to include the voices of industry, academia, government and consumers. And it has to be done with balance and freedom from dominance by any one party or interest.

The fifth essential is having capable tools and processes. Are electronic tools available to allow discussion and consensus building to take place through the Web? Many of us use software allowing teleconferencing with file sharing in real time at meetings at national or regional levels. These tools work well when you’re dealing with one or two time zones or one or two regions, but they’re difficult to scale up on a truly global level because of time differences. Instead, we need to seek tools that allow full discussion in non-real time, that allow thinking during working hours and also accommodate the added challenges of non-native English speakers. We have to re-think and restructure the work to make this successful. We have to define problems into modules that can be easily discussed. We need to have the ability to complement non-real time work with the occasional face-to-face meeting, using scarce and expensive time to resolve critical points of contention.

The sixth and final essential is the courage to change at the grass-roots level. As a community, we are very good at setting up technical groups, committees and working groups and launching these as we address a perceived need. Where we all fail ourselves and the markets is that we are too slow to combine, evolve and eliminate some of these technical groups once their useful life has peaked. We should place more emphasis on the work and how to facilitate it, and less on the power, prestige and legacy of a longstanding technical structure that becomes less efficient as its markets and technologies evolve. We have to develop the courage to lower the walls, combine working groups, sunset groups when they become obsolete and, more importantly, get different groups to work with each other on a common goal.

If all six of these essentials are realized, then the standards process can be considered a success.

*The thoughts and observations in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Corning Inc. but rather the author’s experience and observations from many years in standards developing groups at the national and international level.


As director of technical standards and standards policy, James E. Matthews leads worldwide standards engineering activities for multiple business divisions across Corning Inc. Matthews has held leadership roles in several domestic and international standards committees including those in the Telecommunications Industry Association, the International Electrotechnical Commission and the International Telecommunications Union.