The Software, Standards and Society in 2020 Series: 3. The Messy Globalization of Standards

Believe it or not, globalization came as a surprise to everyone. Even though we have traded with foreign partners for centuries, the widespread nature of global exchange of goods, services, ideas, technologies and more has changed society in unimaginable ways. The effects are long-term and are felt only gradually. So also with standards. Some of the people who are currently have a role in managing the system of standards at various levels, appear stuck in their old institutions, insisting their processes, charters, or mandates should not change. Some defend their fossilized quarters as if they would provide more than temporary shelter from the relentless logic of history. While this resistance is understandable, it is ultimately unproductive and costly to society.

In the last thirty years, the standards world has gone from US dominance to European assertion and Chinese boom. Europe today is a global standards player, or, rather, it tries to be. Clearly, European Standards Organizations (ESOs) are an important vehicle to enact the European regulations of the internal market—as a way to channel a concrete request to the international community. But the rationale for purely regional standards is extremely limited. Moreover, each of the 27 Member States also have quite assertive national standards bodies (as do most countries around the world). This complicates the vision one might have of one, global standards community, a thought so dear to the software industry. While national representatives meet at ISO, they have their own agendas and all try to adapt into niche players in their respective markets. The proper role of regional and national standards bodies is in educating people about standards, in arranging local mirror committees, and in working on specific aspects of global standards where there is regional, national or local expertise, little else.

According to an OECD report on Regulatory Reform and International Standardization (OECD 1999), standards directly affect at least 80 percent of world trade. But since few of those who should read OECD reports actually do, and most of those who do, end up being confused and overloaded (which might include readers and the writer of this blog), it might be worth considering why standards matter beyond the evidence from trade.

But I claimed that the situation is messy. Why is that? There are several factors:

First, the standards landscape itself is becoming too complicated with a myriad of global, regional and local players – official, semi-official, associations, clubs, etc.. The latest CEN overview of fora/consortia in ICT shows some 500 active players (the actual number is unclear, as the initial study was carried out years ago and the list keeps evolving without much concurrent analysis of the content).

Moreover, the regional assertion (Europe, China) is itself problematic. One would expect each world region of some prominence to start claiming their territory in terms of standards setting. The proliferation of fora/consortia makes the standards world complex to navigate, often expensive to staff and travel to support, even for relatively large companies.
As if this was not enough, new sets of actors are making themselves known (NGOs, user groups, SMEs) all the time. The system is ever evolving and continuously adds new actors. While this is not in itself a problem, it is once the system is overly complex. Even the large players loose oversight, and coordination problems ensue, which is quite ironic, since the entire purpose of standards is to address that problem.

What are the driving forces behind this messy globalization of the standards world? There are several factors:

The first is discontentment with status quo. Industry, on the one hand, whether as standards makers or standards takers (users) feels the formal process is slow. The scale of the international system is too small and too big at the same time. Too small to achieve wide availability and implementation fast enough. Too big and complex to gain overview. Many say its functionality is old-fashioned. Some say the formal system is in a breakdown. Well, let's look at some reasons why that is: lack of representation, competence, transparency, speed, dissemination, and excessive complexity, bureaucracy, and cost. Max Weber, the scholar of bureaucracy, should have waited to coin his expression “the iron cage”, an over-bureaucratized social order that feels like "the polar night of icy darkness", until he met a standards body.

Multinationals have largely moved on, or are actively looking for alternatives while still keeping a token presence in the old world. The reason is not spite, but speed. There is no time to waste. This is despite the fact that a well-functioning global system of formal standards setting would be the best for all parties.

Consumers, on the other hand, may feel utterly distanced from the process as a whole, most of them do not know their life is happening the way it does because standards are in place, and evolve. Those who do show some awareness are largely angry. The Naomi Klein's of the world provide a resounding, constant outcry for more sensible global institutions. Ones with real representation, legitimacy, and raison d'etre.
Governments tend to outsource the problem to a chosen, anointed set of standards bodies that seems to remain unchanged, no matter how slow, inefficient, or expensive they are. Standards bodies, in turn, tend to outsource the actual work of standards making, that is, the dirty job of traveling and spending days in endless meetings to try to reach consensus, to dubious experts without any real idea of government requirements. If they reconsidered that practice, they might discover that there are people within those same governments, to whom standards matter, and matter indeed. But since the process is viewed as so cumbersome and complex, most bureaucrats find it too bureaucratic. Match that! I am, of course, exaggerating to make my point, and there are plenty of smart movers and shakers in the standards world, but the system as a whole needs major revision. A global downturn may prove to be just the ingredient to make that possible. But I would not count on Obama this time, although yesterday's announcement of simplifying fuel efficiency standards was an example of putting complexities aside and doing what makes sense, at least in the US market. There are many more examples in the ICT field.

The second is innovation. New technologies feed new organizational processes, and the Internet is one such bundle of technologies, a bundle that is entirely foreign to the concept of national representation, for instance. The concept of transparency is also completely different on the web, which seems to go largely unnoticed among the formal standards players.

The third is monopolies. Some big players who, paradoxically, depend on their dominant position to survive, because they have an exclusive platform that either takes all or is irrelevant, attempt to subvert the formal standards process when threatened. Alternatively, they try to overtake it more subtly, by sitting on every possible committee, or by buying votes when their view does not prevail. The near history of such abuse does not make standards reform easy, and understandably makes for a certain scepticism on behalf of those SMEs or governments that feel they might lose even more control in a global picture.

Proliferation makes business sense only as long as there are no other, better alternatives. In terms of rescuing the ideal of global standards, what can be done? (more tomorrow).

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Trond Undheim, Ph.D, Director of Standards Strategy and Policy at the Oracle Corporation, speaker, entrepreneur, blogger, and author, is one of the world’s leading experts on technology and society. LinkedIn profile

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