Standards: who’d have them?

Whether to standardise?

“If only there were a standard!” How often have we heard this lament about the need for consistency and the benefits of uniformity? Standards free us from decisions and incompatibilities, and are extremely useful in many situations.

On the other hand, there is the sceptical approach: “The great thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from.” So goes the “standard” joky banter about standards; and it continues: “and if you do not like any of those available, then another one will be along next year.”

When to standardise?

One of the most important factors in standardisation is its timing. When there are a variety of approaches to a problem and they are used in combination, then clearly there is a potential advantage in selecting a standard approach; but timing is everything!

Attempts to standardise too early, while the understanding of markets and/or technology are continuing to develop, run the risk of committing to approaches, models and technologies which are soon overtaken by further developments in the field. Consequently, they may lock in thinking which rapidly becomes out of date and appear, in retrospect, to have been “too much, too soon”.

Attempts to standardise too late, after multiple incompatible approaches are in widespread use, face the challenge of corralling those conflicting approaches towards a common standard. The situation may prove to be impossible to defragment, although the market will eventually decide that.

This difficulty of timing is compounded by the length of time taken to reach agreement on standards.

Most standards emerge much later than most people, especially vendors, care to admit.

How to standardise?

Some years ago, during an airline flight (always a good time to meet interesting people), I was chatting to my neighbour, who worked for a supplier of connectors for electrical and electronic equipment. One of my “standard” questions: “what has been the biggest change in your industry in the last five years?”, usually yields a clear answer, and so it was this time. “Without a doubt:” he said, “standardisation.”

When I naively commented that “it must be difficult to be sure to choose the one that ends up as the standard”, his response was disarming. “Not at all”, he said, “we talk to everyone else and make sure that we all pick the same one!”

What to standardise?

There is an implication to be drawn from these points about whether, when and how to standardise. It is that we can only standardise what we agree on. While there are multiple approaches in any field, and some approaches are more useful than others in different situations, then standardisation is likely to be difficult.

Standardisation is likely to be most successful when there are a variety of incompatible approaches, more than one of which are good enough for their purpose, with little advantage in choosing one over another. At that point, from the perspective of the customer, there is more value in everyone choosing the same approach then in necessarily choosing the best approach.

Furthermore, this situation is unlikely to arise while the area to be standardised is one in which vendors continue to claim a competitive advantage. Only when they have moved onwards and upwards to higher levels of  value, and the incompatible area has become a supporting or commodity issue, does the area become available for standardisation.

And this takes a while!

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