Standards and the Knowledge Age

by John E. “Jack” West

Things are moving so fast these days that some are questioning the long-term viability of standards, particularly management systems standards (MSSs).

Although these skeptics might prove to be correct, standards are very likely to survive, even with the changes futurists are predicting. But the standardization process might have to change so it can respond more quickly to user needs.

The knowledge age is upon us. In their recent book Revolutionary Wealth, Alvin and Heidi Toffler remind us we are well into an age in which wealth is created through knowledge and the great rule of the age is change.1

The Tofflers trace the roots of this situation to 1956, when the number of white-collar and service workers in the United States first exceeded the number of blue-collar workers. The industrial age thus started to wane about 50 years ago, and the rate of change has been accelerating ever since.

Another good way to get a handle on the changes being predicted is to read The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century by Thomas L. Friedman.2

Uncertainty Everywhere

It seems as if everything around us is changing. From reorganizations, mergers, spin-offs and massive product line changes to shifts in cultural and even religious attitudes, we are besieged by change.

Such change tends to increase our own uncertainty, so even people who claim to be change agents or say they love change “because it’s exciting” are secretly scared to death of the next onslaught.

Most companies I work with are moving fast to lead the charge and get ahead in this environment. This is not just true for their products but also with how they manage their organizations.

Standards are creatures of the industrial age, and MSSs really got developed after the knowledge age was well underway—they could be called either late industrial age developments or early knowledge age creations. The question is, which are they?

The institutions that develop today’s standards grew out of the need for standardization in an industrial environment. So these institutions are actually creatures of the late industrial era.

But services, and even products, are becoming more self service. Some think concepts such as mass production and mass customization are becoming obsolete.

If this is true, in the future we might be able to choose products totally tailored to our individual needs. And at some point we even might be able to make them ourselves with our own “desktop manufacturing” equipment. After all, most of us—even grandparents—have replaced the photo printing plant with personal computers and printers to make prints of photos.

To make all this work, there will need to be standards of some sort, at least for products and software.

Drawn Out Process

Current standardization processes are ponderously slow and cumbersome. A key focus is on involving all parties and achieving consensus. Each standards committee has endless discussions about achieving balance among interested parties.

The process of achieving consensus itself involves long and often contentious debates among so-called experts followed by several rounds of formal voting. The purpose is noble: Gain consensus among the interested parties so all will be able to use the resulting standard.

Such standards are a key part of establishing a level, competitive playing field for all participants in a market. They provide producers and buyers confidence that products and services will meet certain expectations related to safety, usability and interchangeability.

As long as these results are needed, there will need to be standards. But the trick is that products, services and even managerial techniques are changing so fast the standardization process has difficulty keeping up. In the future as change accelerates, that situation might make life in the standards development world untenable in its current form.

Efforts So Far

Standards developers have been aware of these conditions for a long time, and there have been efforts to accommodate rapidly changing needs. Within the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), several changes have sped the process. These changes relate to development of documents that are full international standards.

While these changes certainly make the process faster than it was, it still seems ponderously slow to many people given our current environment and ever changing user needs.

As a result, there also have been attempts to narrow involvement, speed up the process and include the notion that there can be competing documents in the same area.

Recognizing several years ago that the timing cycle for standards development was out of sync with user needs, ISO wisely revised its timing requirements to speed the development of international standards and changed its family of deliverables to include documents with much less rigorous approval processes than international standards.

The new deliverables include ISO technical specifications (TSs) that require only one ballot for approval. The automotive industry used this process to create TS 16949 to replace QS-9000 and the European automotive industry quality management system requirements with a single international document.

The project to create TS 16949 was reasonably speedy because it was controlled by the industry leaders. They determine which suppliers must use it, and it appears to be a success.

ISO also created the idea of international workshop agreements (IWAs) whereby interested parties can meet at a single workshop and create a document that, after editing, can be published as an ISO IWA.

While such documents are not international standards, they can be used, tested and validated by use. The documents are reviewed after three years of use and can be retained as an IWA for three more years. After this, IWAs can either be approved as international standards through a formal voting process or cancelled.

This process has proven a good way to obtain a document. But because all affected parties are not necessarily involved in a document’s development, some IWAs developed so far have had relatively limited use.

Such documents are also limited because some countries, including the United States, lack a process to adopt internationally developed IWAs.

Situation in the United States

While U.S. businesses are the drivers of much of the changes going on in the world, including changes in standardization, we are institutionally reluctant to try new international documents even though they might be helpful.

An example is the reluctance of U.S. educators, healthcare people and public servants to use IWA 1:2005—Quality Management Systems: Guidelines for Process Improvements in Health Service Organizations;3 IWA 2:2003, Quality Management Systems—Guidelines for the Application of ISO 9001:2000 in Education;4 or IWA 4:2005, Quality Management Systems—Guidelines for the Application of ISO 9001:2000 in Local Governments.5

When we stand back from these developments—and those in other economic sectors—we find a fairly strong desire among many quality leaders to provide much more specific guidance or requirements for the application of ISO 9001 in their sectors.

On the other hand, some would have all the MSSs combined into one super MSS document covering quality, environment, health and safety, and perhaps even financial management.

But we must remember there are whole sectors of the economy clinging to the relative simplicity of the current versions of ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 and resisting more specific or integrated MSSs.

Out of Sync

We therefore are hearing clamor for more narrowly focused MSS documents at the same time we are experiencing a demand for simpler, more flexible ones. Things seem really out of sync.

There also appears to be reluctance in the standards community to find a way to adopt IWAs as U.S. documents so they can be promoted and made more widely available here. Thus, while organizations are changing exponentially, the standards process seems to plod along at a snail’s pace.

All this seems to bother those who have worked hard to make the process of standards development more dynamic. Yet there might be a distinction between perception and reality.

In fact, most of the comments I get about ISO 9001 these days suggest the standard include more specific requirements related to product development, production and delivery.

Yet in a dynamically changing world, greater specificity would seem to be exactly the opposite of what is needed. Greater specificity would indicate a return to industrial age thinking rather than an advance to expanded knowledge age capability facilitated by flexibility—not specific restrictions.

I suggest we aside the debate over whether sector specific quality management system (QMS) standards are a good or bad idea—that is another subject—and recognize that whether good or bad, there is a significant market for such documents.

Horizon 2010

ISO technical committee (TC) 176 has developed Horizon 2010, which is a plan to achieve within that TC processes capable of faster action to support user needs.

In reality there has been limited success in this project because TC 176 does not have responsibility for most of the sector specific QMS standards. ISO has recently established a strategic advisory group reporting to its technical management board to provide policy advice on MSS development. This group is new and thus untested.

What does all this mean? Well, it means the world of MSSs is behaving like the overall knowledge based economy. In attempting to synchronize the standardization process at one level, we have caused desynchronization on a new plane.

In Revolutionary Wealth, the Tofflers point out, “The hidden paradox of the law of desynchronization is that the more you synchronize at one level in a system, the more you desynchronize at another.”6 In my view, the world’s MSS situation is an excellent example of this.

The jury is out on standardization for the 21st century. Certainly we will continue to need standards—even MSSs—but perhaps we will need to revamp completely our standards development systems to make them more responsive to user needs.

Leaders in the world’s standards organizations know these issues well. The question is whether there will be sufficient collective will to change the things that need to be changed and strengthen those aspects of the current system that can serve us well in the future.

The alternative is to disband the current system and find a new way, but I don’t think we want to do that.

For the near term we need stability. Certainly the core MSS documents (ISO 9001 and ISO 14001) need to remain essentially as they are for the next several years since there are many sectors that are just catching up with the current versions.

For the longer term (after 2016) we very likely will need a new paradigm developed in parallel with, but separate from, work required to update and maintain current standards.

A new paradigm likely will lead us to something quite different from the system of standards we have today. Perhaps it will turn out to be something like a system of MSS modules from which users can choose to build systems tailored to their specific economic sector and organizational needs.

Certainly with the technology and knowledge we have, we can devise a solution. What such a system would look like and how it would work in practice is a mystery.

Such a system likely would require development of a new consensus model and other basic changes to the standardization process. This will take time. Although 2016 is nearly 10 years away and seems a long time to wait, out-of-the-box ideas take a long time to be accepted.

Nevertheless, it is time to start the dialogue about building that consensus.


  1. Alvin Toffler and Heidi Toffler, Revolu-tionary Wealth, Knopf, 2006.
  2. Thomas L. Friedman, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, updated and expanded edition, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.
  3. IWA 1:2005—Quality Management Systems: Guidelines for Process Improvements in Health Service Organizations,
    www.iso.ch/iso/en/CatalogueDetailPage.CatalogueDetail?CSNUMBER=41768&ICS1=11&ICS2=20&ICS3= (case specific).
  4. 4. IWA 2:2003, Quality Management Systems—Guidelines for the Application of ISO 9001:2000 in Education, www.iso.ch/iso/en/CatalogueDetailPage.CatalogueDetail?CSNUMBER=38866&ICS1=3&ICS2=120&ICS3=10 (case specific).
  5. 5. IWA 4:2005, Quality Management Systems—Guidelines for the Application of ISO 9001:2000 in Local Governments, www.iso.ch/iso/en/CatalogueDetailPage.CatalogueDetail?CSNUMBER=43020&ICS1=3&ICS2=120&ICS3=10 (case specific).
  6. 6. Toffler, Revolutionary Wealth, see reference 1.

JOHN E. “JACK” WEST is a management consultant and business advisor. He served on the board of examiners for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award from 1990 to 1993 and is past chair of the U.S. technical advisory group to ISO technical committee 176 and lead delegate to the committee responsible for the ISO 9000 family of quality management standards. He is co-author of several ASQ Quality Press books.

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