In Act 2, Scene 2 of Romeo and Juliet, Juliet ponders “What’s in a name?…That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet,” suggesting that names do not define but are merely labels used to distinguish one thing from another. For most words, arguably this would be true, with one notable exception—standards. If Ms. Capulet had pondered instead, “Is that which we call a standard, by any other name, still a standard?” the answer would be a resounding, “No!”
Unlike Juliet’s rose, which cannot lose its fragrance if identified as a hyacinth, standards do lose potency when not recognized for their true nature. The term does define them, because across industry sectors, mutually agreed upon standards follow strict procedures for writing and development—including extensive innovation, research, and testing phases—often taking years to move from conception to publication. They’re not just “documents” or “publications.”
For a rule or regulation to bear the label “standard,” two unique and significant qualifications must be present:
- A recognized authority has established it, and
- There is general consent or consensus from diverse, voluntary, and cooperative stakeholders who confirm through a balloted process the delineated format and precise wording used when it is codified or published.
The standards consensus process is what gives the standard its unique qualities. The process provides the sponsoring authority the means to weave, measure, and cut each standard as it addresses a specific need—alleviating confusion, offering continuity, and in general, benefiting our lives in numerous ways across multiple fields and industries.
Today, as each wave of technology innovation moves society forward, calls to change this traditionally complex development cycle have emerged to speed up access to standards content or make it available in new ways. These calls for innovation are viewed by some as placing the value and relevance of standards in jeopardy. Some manufacturing and engineering leaders want to integrate and/or aggregate standards data and content into proprietary end products, potentially placing the standard’s distinguishing elements—authority and consensus—at risk and threatening to dilute their value. How should SDOs heed calls for changes to developing their digital rose—the standard document type—while allowing it to remain unique, identifiable, and valuable?
Prior to the 2008 economic recession, many SDOs operated as self-sufficient, industry-specific publishers within change- and/or risk-averse environments, often with self-contained, restrictive, and rigid infrastructures that utilized inefficient or outdated production and print-based distribution models. Competition between SDOs within the same or similar industries often outweighed the perceived value of engaging in collaboration. Today, championed by international, independent, governmental, and non-governmental standards bodies, SDOs are collectively realizing new strategies to promote the sharing of knowledge, improve development timelines, support innovation, and provide solutions for ever-evolving global markets and economies.
Through the advent of new digital distribution market streams, a much-needed impetus for evolution and transformation has emerged. SDOs across all industries have experienced considerable growth with the establishment, adoption, and adherence of universal protocols for production and distribution. International support for the development of structured methodologies for maximizing PDF format, XML tagging (NISO-STS), identification markers (ISBN, ISSN, DOI), digital and eBook delivery, and numerous “smart” standards initiatives have led to essentially a “standardization of standards,” and placed the standards development industry at the forefront of an incredible technological opportunity, a position they cannot afford to fall back from.
As SDOs begin retooling operations, every change that maximizes delivery speed and optimizes output must also preserve the intrinsic elements that elevate standards above and beyond “best practices.” To achieve this involves preserving SDOs’ recognized authority and the voluntary, cooperative, collaborative consensus approval processes that are crucial for sustained relevance. Bearing equal weight in consideration is the importance of protecting content integrity when published and when the content arrives on the user’s screen; addressing each helps the SDO ensure the safety, security, interoperability, compatibility, efficiency, scalability, and reliability of the content. Throughout the workflow, SDOs are focused on protecting the distinctions inherent to the standards format that define its value— and making the rose smell sweet.
As users call for greater accessibility to smart standards data and content to capitalize on global market opportunities, SDOs are carefully considering where to draw the line between ensuring greater use of standards and maintaining the SDO’s own institutional integrity. How much transformation can SDOs support without relinquishing authority and consensus? How can they navigate this evolution while protecting their legacy and reputation? How can they support new use cases without cannibalizing existing revenue? How can they maintain control of standards data and content when aggregated into emerging customer systems and new workflows?
For those SDOs who respond successfully, I see no reason, should fair Juliet ask, “Does a digital rose still smell so sweet?” why the answer would be anything less than “Yes!”
In my next post, I’ll explore answers to the questions raised above and share more perspectives on changes in the standards industry and opportunities ahead.