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issue: December 2008 APPLIANCE Magazine

The Open Door
Surviving the Standards Jungle


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by Robert Noth, manager, Engineering Standards, Deere & Co.

Robert Noth is manager of Engineering Standards at Deere & Co. and chairman of the board of directors, American National Standards Institute. The article is an edited version of a keynote speech given at the 2008 SES Annual Conference, held August 2008 in San Diego, CA, U.S.

The world of standards today is an increasingly complex and confusing world, driven by the rapid pace of today’s society and by the big, overarching challenges we face as citizens of our country and our planet. Issues like harmonizing standards between nations, import safety and conformity assessment, and intellectual property are playing out against a backdrop of a growing global population, increasing demands for energy, rising prices for commodities, and globalization of markets for goods and services. At a recent keynote I gave at the 2008 Society of Engineering Science (SES) Annual Conference, I found it interesting to compare today’s world of standards to a zoo, or better yet, a jungle. I compared the normal behavior of animals in their natural habitat and artificial habitats to the behavior of individuals, organizations, and governments in the world of commerce, and by natural extension, standards.

A Jungle or a Zoo?

I maintain that the animal behavior and survival skills we see in the jungle are still alive and well in the wild and woolly global marketplace. The dominant motivation for an animal in the wild is survival. Every animal competes at some level with every other animal.

But animal life in a zoo is significantly different than in the wild. In a zoo, most interspecies competition is eliminated and survival, at least in terms of food, water, and shelter, is guaranteed by a third party—the zookeepers. Intraspecies competition may still exist in the zoo, especially for some species. Of course, if the problem gets out of hand, zookeepers can always separate the combatants in separate pens. However, they do so at the risk of ensuring the weaker members’ survival, thereby polluting the gene pool by interfering with natural selection and, ultimately, weakening the entire species. This is exactly the opposite of what happens in nature.

And of course, the animals themselves are forced to give up their personal freedom and must conform to the rules imposed by the zookeepers. A zoo is a welfare state for animals, and the zookeepers are in command and control.

Here is where the analogy starts to get interesting as it relates to standards and standardization on a global scale. I believe the process of standardization and standards themselves are also an artificial state—very much like a zoo. They recommend common behaviors among competing entities. Standards are counterintuitive in the natural world. Animals adapt. Mutations occur. And the successful ones survive and make the species stronger. It is the core element of Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

It is a proven fact that animals raised in captivity lose their ability to survive in the wild. And there is no reason to believe that such animals are not happy or at least satisfied with their captivity, especially in the modern form of zoo that duplicates much of their natural habitat, but with none of the normal risks experienced in the wild.

Humans adapt and evolve too. And those that live in welfare states come to depend on what the “zookeepers” provide. The lure of security and a risk-free life is powerful. (Just ask any European leader elected to initiate reform in the last 20 years.) That thinking is starting to permeate standards development in important venues around the world.

Survival of the Fittest

There are more and more stakeholders who demand a seat at the table where standards are being established. They often have a particular point of view as to what is necessary to make some aspect of life better. Their goals are often admirable, but the cost to implement is often significant. Worse, the marginal improvement appears to be past the point of diminishing returns when a rational cost-benefit-risk analysis is performed. Regardless, they are unwilling to take “no” or even “later” for an answer.

At its core, standardization and effective standards development depend upon compromise for a greater good. Stakeholders—
people or organizations with a vested interest in the outcome of the process—are always understood to be participating with “enlightened” self-interest. That is why it is deemed essential in accredited standards programs that the forum and the rules require strict neutrality from the developer. The cardinal principles of openness, transparency, balance of stakeholder interests, and a lack of dominance or undue bias must be observed in reaching a final agreement that all the stakeholders can live with. It is adherence to these principles that differentiates a formal accredited standards development from some consortia. Often, a perfect outcome is not achievable, but in the interest of the greater good, it’s better to publish and implement the less-than-perfect agreement that can achieve consensus. For that reason, standardization should always be looked at as a journey, and any given version of a standard as only a temporary stopping place on the trip and a platform for the next step forward.

Standardization functions best when all the participants are enlightened and come to the table in the spirit of compromise, with an outlook to the greater good. Honest disagreements between experts will often generate spirited discussion, but in the end, all parties need to be willing to seek a way forward that everyone can live with. Today, that is not always the case, and too often, the process results in polarized camps each with an agenda and a “my way or the highway” attitude.

Given the challenges we face today, I don’t believe the private-sector-led, voluntary consensus standards development can afford to be equated with the U.S. Congress in terms of its effectiveness.

In the natural world, dominant animals mark and protect their turf. Their turf includes not only territory, but their family groups. Picture two mature 800-lb silverback gorillas who have been successfully leading their groups for a very long time, but not without occasional grunting, bellowing, and chest thumping when they thought one or the other was infringing on their turf or trying to steal away family members and followers. Recently though, several younger bull gorillas have shown up and are growing in strength. They have their own family groups, and they govern them with a more authoritarian manner than the more-mature gorillas. The arrival of the new bulls has been marked with a noticeable increase in the bellowing and grunting between all the bulls, and occasional feints and threatening gestures with much chest thumping. When these behaviors occur, they reverberate all through the jungle.

Questionable Security

These confrontations are not taking place in a zoo, but in the real world of global trade, commerce, and politics among sovereign nations. How will the mature patriarchs deal with the newcomers? Will there be a new global patriarch diminishing the power of the more-mature bulls? Or will they ultimately prove to be of equal strength and influence, and settle down to mutual coexistence with all turf boundaries respected? Will standards development have a role to play in answering those questions?

I believe the answer to the last question is yes, regardless of the other outcome. The real question is: Will it play a positive or negative role? And if society is bent on replacing the “Law of the Jungle” with the “Law of the Zoo,” then someone has to be the zookeeper, and the zookeeper will have to have enough resources to live up to the guarantees that were made in getting the animals to agree to give up freedom for security.

I think the real question is: When everybody is in the zoo, who is going to produce the wealth necessary to provide those guarantees?

Robert Noth is manager of Engineering Standards at Deere & Co. and chairman of the board of directors, American National Standards Institute. The article is an edited version of a keynote speech given at the 2008 SES Annual Conference, held August 2008 in San Diego, CA, U.S. If you would like to contact Noth, please e-mail lisa.bonnema@cancom.com.




 

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