I have enjoyed a long and stable career path paved with just two major appointments, each spanning two decades. My quite different career moves have provided interesting perspectives on the places I’ve worked for and I am now in a position to see their strengths and weaknesses from the outside.
For 20 years I mastered the ins and outs of international standardization at ISO. Then, two years ago, I took the plunge with a very different kind of job when I joined the largest pension fund in Denmark – as a contributor mind you, I am not yet on the receiving end ! Yet the world of standardization continues to creep into my daily life, both on a professional and a personal level, and I am constantly reminded of the many things that would not be possible without ISO and its members.
Take the financial sector for instance. Its global scale and the strict regulations it must adhere to make it a hugely complex industry that requires advanced management tools in order to function. It also relies on a set of core values, one of which immediately drew my attention : simplification. I can’t help but think that, ultimately, this is what standardization is all about.
PFA, the company I work for, like many others, strives to be as efficient as possible in its operations, processes and products. In this context, the words “simplicity” and “standardization” are often used synonymously. We talk about “adopting standardized solutions”, “applying simple concepts”, “achieving a standard for this or that”, and “demonstrating continuous improvement”. But what strikes me is that this daily discourse takes place outside the realm of standardization as we know it.
We have a lot of valuable tools at our disposal, but I have yet to come across standards in their most basic sense, as ISO intended. Of course, the world we live in is not devoid of standards, but they are sector-specific and completely unknown to the general public outside our specialized fields.
This can be explained by two factors : a lack of general knowledge about standardization, and a deep-rooted “we want and know how to do it all” approach. Yet clearly, this outlook can be costly : reinventing the wheel amounts to an incredible waste of time and effort. Our company knows the usefulness of standards, but we need to take that extra step and move away from our sectorial approach towards an international one.
The Swedish standards body, SIS, encapsulated the essence of standardization in the image of a nuclear family – father, mother, daughter and son – enjoying the sunshine on a lovely summer’s day in the Swedish countryside. In this idyllic picture, there was a lawnmower, toys, a house and a boat by the lake, each identified by a bubble listing the numerous standards that support them. Yet the happy family seemed blissfully oblivious to the standards that “enable” this comfortable lifestyle.
This is a story the standards community knows only too well ! Looking at this snapshot from a distance, I realize that it captures not only the mission of standardization, but also the cracks in its veneer. The evident “lack of awareness” emphasizes how too many of us still have not grasped the true meaning and importance of standards.
Too many of us have not grasped the importance of standards.
Although I have not surveyed my 1 200 colleagues, I believe most would fit the mainstream profile. During meetings, I try to change this state of affairs by telling them about standards and how they make a difference. An old trick of mine is to mention ISO 9001… for that “aha !” moment. Regrettably, this flicker of realization is all it brings to mind, highlighting a fundamental lack of insight into the value and role of International Standards, a fact that won’t be solved by merely getting them to buy a standard.
Now that I am a “user” of standards, I am more aware of ISO’s ability to detect, capture and elaborate sustainable trends for business and society. ISO 26000 for social responsibility is an excellent example of ISO’s capacity to spot and pick winners. In spite of today’s economic crisis and adverse business conditions, a considerable number of Danish enterprises – including our company – are making systematic efforts to document social responsibility.
These efforts are sustained by the firm conviction that, in doing so, we will add value to our customers and improve our market position.
When we took on the challenge, I was keen to be involved and tackle social responsibility from a practical side. But I was surprised to discover that our efforts were being driven by general considerations and broad objectives without using the inspiration and guidance of ISO 26000, which nobody had heard about.
It was an eye-opener for my colleagues ! I gave them a copy of the standard and used it to stimulate, facilitate and systematize our task. The good news was that the standard proved quite useful. The bad news was not having turned to it from the outset, which would have saved us a lot of energy.
ISO still has a long way to go to make its work more visible and accessible, especially at the operational and user levels. But this is not for lack of trying, for ISO has deployed a lot of resources and energy on branding. Standards are just not an easy subject on which to communicate, because they are abstract and technical, and because of the broadness of their scope. I used to say : “You name it, we’ve got it !” As if it weren’t complex enough, successful communication also requires the coordinated effort of the ISO Central Secretariat at an international level and ISO’s member bodies at a national level.
To conclude, I should like to leave you with this thought : I know that you are working hard and are doing a good and valuable job, but don’t rest on your laurels ! Keep going and step up the pace as the road is still long. In today’s world, if you are not adapting and growing, you risk a certain end. The world needs ISO’s sustained efforts to help customers fully reap the benefits of standards. Business continuity, in particular, is an area where ISO can have a significant impact. Once enterprises recover from the storm that has been raging since 2008, they will draw lessons from this bitter experience : constant vigilance and transparency are prerequisites in order to face the rapid, often unexpected changes of today’s globalized world.