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September/October 2010

A Too Well-Kept Secret

Maryann Gorman,  Standardization News' Editor in ChiefAt the annual conference of SES: The Society for Standards Professionals in August, James M. Shannon presented a fascinating keynote speech that addressed the awareness of standardization at the policy-making level of the U.S. government. Shannon is the president and CEO of the National Fire Protection Association and a former U.S. congressman, so he is uniquely qualified to speak on the subject.

Shannon introduced his address by talking about a phenomenon that many in his audience know well — the fact that few people who work in standardization entered the work force planning to be a standards professional. That’s not because it isn’t a reputable and valuable field to enter, but because so few people, particularly in the United States, come of age knowing what standards are and how they influence technology, business and global trade. The standards system is supported by a large network of committed scientists, engineers, academicians, trade association professionals and government agency representatives, but standards, and especially the process by which they are created, somehow remain an unintentionally well-kept secret.

This is, in one sense, a virtue of the system — standards that work well are naturally going to be invisible, particularly to the uninitiated. But Shannon points out that a portion of the people who are not fully aware of the process of standardization includes some government officials at the policymaking level.

Shannon makes the case that it is the responsibility of the standards developing community to bring these officials into a dialogue about the value of standardization and its place in a changing economic environment. “The globalization of the economy,” Shannon says, “the development of the Internet and with it the notion that all information should be free, and the need for greater collaboration among private sector actors, especially in the technology areas.…mean that we had better be a lot more aggressive at educating public officials.”

The good news is, we are headed in that direction. University-level engineering and business programs have begun introducing standards into their curricula, educating future CEOs and policymakers. Standards development organizations such as ASTM International have staff actively engaging business and government leaders in an ongoing conversation about the value of the unique public-private partnership that is the foundation of the U.S. standards system. And government officials who more fully understand this model will be more equipped to establish trade initiatives that enable U.S.-based SDOs to advance their market-relevant standards on the global stage. That’s something that can go a long way toward ensuring a robust and responsive system of international trade.

Maryann Gorman
Editor in Chief