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The Human Truth About Standards Development

Let it be clearly stated here, lest the rant below be misinterpreted: standards compliance is extremely important. Without it, organizations can quickly find themselves inhabiting isolated islands of technology and experiencing huge spikes in implementation, maintenance, and operations costs.

But here’s the great often-unasked question: how does a standard become a standard?

• The official answer is: industry associations and/or governmental agencies agree on and codify critical criteria for accomplishing certain objectives, and institute a process for certifying those criteria are met.

• The unofficial answer is: so many organizations do a certain thing a certain way that it becomes silly to do it any other way without good reason.

This latter answer is why I’ve always felt that “the vendor that sells the most, sets the standard” – or in other words, a great many people buy a certain product, and their behavior leads to the emergence of a new standard.

Recent news from Europe further reinforces this point, and from a different direction. Specifically, the European Commission’s DLM Forum two weeks ago released the latest draft of its MoReq2 standard for records management. No big deal in terms of normal standards practices, its backstory is interesting because it has been linked to vendor complaints about how complex the prior version was – so complex, in fact, that only one vendor apparently achieved certification in the two years since MoReq2 was originally ratified.

Now, you may wish to take that linkage with a grain of salt since the clearest statement I found of that perspective is being offered up by a vendor. However, it does ring true because vendors do have enormous influence over how – and whether – standards are implemented.

After all, if none of them support a particular standard, how can a customer organization comply with it? And if one vendor dominates a particular space, how practical is it for a customer to go another route, and how long does it take for that route to become the standard? (See Acrobat, Adobe.)

My point is that standards are as political as they are technological, and their terms of adoption are as negotiable as any other commodity’s. I’m not saying that they should be diminished or ignored as a result, but I am encouraging you to be aware of the human truth that underlies the overall process, and even to engage in it yourself to protect your own interests. At least then the standards that emerge will do you the most good.

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