International Bodies Rethink Their Role

Technology Could Cause­or Close­a Split

by Amy Zuckerman

In the ongoing, evolving world of international standards, the close of the 20th century will undoubtedly be known as a turning point.

The future of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) is in question. The Europeans maintain a dominant role in the current international standards system, although the United States is actively challenging that position. Technology is causing major problems for the world of standards, but also providing opportunities for change.

"It's widely recognized that this is a watershed time for standardization," says David Lazenby, director of standards for the British Standards Institution (BSI). He adds that a number of organizations--European, American, and international--are busy reviewing their structures to determine if they meet the needs of a fast-paced, technologically driven global economy. To this end, he explains that "relationships are being re-examined with industrial partners, with governments on a national and international basis, and between standards bodies themselves."

Lazenby is hardly alone in this assessment. Similar concerns have been voiced by a range of prominent standards officials, including Ray Kammer, director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST); Michael Smith, head of standards for the International Organization for Standardization (ISO): and Takashi Ohtsubo, head of the Japanese Accreditation Board (JAB) and newly voted chairman of the International Accreditation Forum, Inc. (IAF).

The following are major issues and trends these experts have their eyes on.

ANSI's future

The outlook is uncertain at best, following the Dec. 11 resignation of Sergio Mazza as president of the standards coordinating body. Mazza's resignation came at a difficult time for ANSI, which is struggling for an identity and for funding. Reportedly, a $4 million grant request for ANSI has not been approved.

NIST action plan continues

Kammer says he will forge on with his three-point action plan to assert this country's muscle in foreign standards bodies, with a special emphasis on realigning the ISO voting process. As part of this process, he plans to talk to other countries "as government to government," something he can do without ANSI's direct involvement.

"I have some reason to believe that some countries outside of Europe are quite conscious that they're working at a disadvantage at ISO/IEC [International Electrotechnical Commission], so I expect that to be relatively straightforward. I want to bring these issues to ISO/IEC, but I don't have any idea what their response will be. I expect they're people of goodwill and if they believe we're at a disadvantage they will take steps to fix the problem," explains Kammer.

He has stated on numerous occasions that the Europeans enjoy a number of advantages in the international standards arena. The European Union (EU) has 15 votes in ISO to one for the United States, for example. And under the Vienna Agreement, EU standards pretty much become de facto international standards, which provides market advantage.

How to right the situation is another concern. Michael Smith, head of ISO standards, has thrown out the idea of a weighted voting system based on participation. The EU now provides about 50% of ISO technical work, which means the United States has lots of catching up to do to gain votes under this proposal, which Kammer says "deserves a lot of consideration. It strikes me as a fair way to go about things, but it would probably require more financial contribution from the U.S., and industry may not buy that."

With $300 billion in trade at stake, Kammer is hoping the EU will see the light and come to some accord in ISO/IEC. "The Europeans have created a set of circumstances that benefit them in the world of international standardization," which he points out has been a "reasonable" approach for them to take. "The reasons they've succeeded up until now," he says, "are largely the inattention of the rest of the world. I think we have to agree on an agenda in the U.S., which I'm in the process of doing now. I think we have to bring other interested European countries into the debate...to create a better relationship with the ISO/IEC than we currently have."

By the year 2000, Kammer says there "will still be an ISO/IEC. I think the U.S. system will still be pluralistic, and I hope there's still an ANSI."

Lazenby of BSI believes the European Commission (the executive arm of the EU) has been acting against the interests of international standardization with its special ISO relationship. "It seems inevitable that the political aspirations of the European Commission will be exposed as being contrary to the true interests of standardization," he says.

However, he faults the U.S. government as well, saying that both the United States and EU "only support standards bodies on their own terms. The extent to which governmental support can be reconciled with open systems of standardization (nevertheless achieving the necessary efficiency which we all require) remains to be seen."

Smith continues to believe that there is as much wrong with the U.S. standards system as there is with the European approach to international standardization, a position that Kammer does not deny.

Says Smith, "There is a wide perception that the U.S. is not maximizing its participation in international standardization bodies and there were wide calls for reform of the U.S. standards system to make U.S. participation in the global standards arena more effective, and to review international standardization bodies to ensure that their structures and procedures are equitable." He sees this as a major focus in 1999, and in fact sees U.S. standards officials moving in this direction.

World organizations facing change

Between the Europeanization of standards and testing bodies, a growing industry faction that's demanding "value" of the accreditation (certification and testing) industry, and the faster pace technology is producing, many standards organizations are facing major overhauls. ISO is not immune to these changes. Neither is a major registrar like BSI, which is finding it has to move beyond a narrow range of standards activities to survive.

One organization that's been challenging the accreditation world is the Industry Cooperation on Standards and Conformity Assessment (ICSCA). This "who's who" of high-tech, aerospace, automotive, and heavy equipment industries has been meeting regularly for several years in an attempt to assert industry concerns into the international standards arena. Those concerns are mostly to contain the trends toward an increasing number of standards that include costly accreditation schemes, among others.

Registration officials like Lazenby credit ICSCA with having a number of potent industry players--58 major corporations at last count. But he argues that these companies hardly represent industry worldwide, especially the needs of small and midsize companies.

Nevertheless, as ICSCA's January meeting in Florida indicates, these industry leaders will continue to meet and assert their needs (at least through 1999). And, it's interesting to note that a number of ICSCA members--especially Motorola and Hewlett-Packard--have been instrumental in the ongoing development of IAF.

IAF is now incorporated, and its new chairman, Ohtsubo, believes this confers additional responsibility on the body to be "legally accountable for what we have done.... Global stakeholders related to the conformity assessment arena will expect us, IAF, Inc., to be a professional body with greater credibility, greater productivity, and greater responsibility."

To meet these expectations, he says he will ask his board to consider greater outreach and coordination with world standards bodies, including the World Trade Organization (WTO), ISO, and international organizations devoted to laboratory accreditation. Ohtsubo also says that IAF members are committed to enlarging the organization, as well as to helping developing countries participate, reflecting the knowledge in economic circles that most of the major market growth in the next century lies in these regions. There is no discussion, to date, of widening IAF membership to include more consumer representation.

Technology and standardization

The needs of a fast-paced high-tech industry have been pushing at the somewhat staid structures of organizations like ISO, which has created a fast-track approach to standards development. ISO is also working on making its standards efforts more bottom-line oriented and connected to current business concerns, according to Smith.

Both Smith and Kammer expect to see more and more use of the Internet as a tool for fast-tracking standards development, and increasing participation in the international standards arena. In fact, Kammer believes that the Internet may pose the solution U.S. industry needs for cost-effective participation in standards organizations such as ISO. And Lazenby says the fast-track method of moving standards development along will be necessary.

Whether the high-tech arena will actually secede from the current international standards system is being questioned and debated. Kammer says he has no knowledge of any such threat, but he believes it would be "to the disadvantage of U.S. industry to do so" because it would cut off American high-tech companies from forums like ISO that deal with developing countries and their emerging markets.

Although he doesn't know of any such developments taking place, Kammer says he can imagine a scenario unfolding involving a small number of dominant high-tech vendors that actually create their own international standards system using the current consortia approach to standards development. With major name recognition, they could certainly gain the attention of all markets. But this approach would bring to the fore "legal concerns about antitrust," says Kammer. "I never think it's to the advantage of the consumer when a relatively small group comes together. With the pace of technology today, it's much better for a competitive market that [standards development] takes place in the open."

BEGINNING THIS MONTH, Quality Progress is expanding its coverage of standards news, which will now appear in two places. News about the development of standards will appear in our Keeping Current department, while the new Standards Outlook column will feature commentary. Amy Zuckerman will continue to contribute to this department, but we are looking for other knowledgeable individuals to write about standards in this space as well. We are particularly interested in publishing case histories describing the implementation of standards. If you would like to become a contributor, please contact Susan E. Daniels at 800-248-1946 or (414)-272-8575, ext. 7295, or by e-mail at sdaniels@asq.org.

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