What’s the great thing about standards? There are so many to choose from!
A corollary to that old joke is that the workload associated with following multiple standards can be daunting. But the value of that work is rising. The convergence of many products and services onto a single network has made standards efforts more strategically important than ever before.
Convergence increases risk. It motivates all parties in the supply chain — from consumers to service providers to vendors and subsystem and component suppliers — to contain risks by maintaining formal and informal relationships with standards bodies.
Standards serve as multilateral contracts. In intellectual property terms, they are legal agreements.
"Managing assumptions is especially difficult when peer pressure makes it hard to disagree."
However, in the telecommunications business, standards are not always given the attention that such agreements would merit. Depending on objectives and priorities, stakeholders sometimes regard standards work as a "necessary evil" (a cost center), a popularity contest, a political game, a marketing vehicle or an R&D sandbox.
While each of these treatments is grounded in some element of truth, standards work never reduces to any one of those things. It is much more.
Increasingly, interested parties are compelled to work not only with peers, allies, and suppliers, but also with competitors and their suppliers. That makes understanding the role of each company as important to the process as any technical due diligence.
The reality, however, is that standards organizations are the social manifestation in a global supply chain of the engineering profession. That is for better and worse. As a rough rule, engineers tend to be more adept at calibrating nanometers and nanoseconds than interacting socially and analyzing complex organizational behavior.
That said, the first step on the strategic side is to try to understand a company’s goals. Companies and their individual representatives, however, can and do change goals. Tactics and strategies in standards work may shift as a result.
Another complication is the influence of organizations both in and outside of the standards process. Parties are now called upon to manage the development of ideas that could impact their businesses before they come to the table. These pre-cooked "recommendations" extend the responsibility of engineers and strategists both to analyze the ideas of their competitors and to socialize their own.
That begs another question: When can you assess a technology as competitive? There are many examples of controversial technologies being fought over politically today, even before they have reached their potential. It’s possible to choose sides too early. Imagine a service provider or vendor who had dismissed or opposed any of following: Internet protocol, voice over IP or Ethernet.
How would that have gone over with customers? Not so well. In each case, assumptions about the use of a technology would have been faulty.
Managing assumptions is especially difficult when peer pressure makes it hard to disagree. Yet technology itself is neither good nor bad. It’s all a matter of objectives and how one plans to use a technology for products and services delivered to customers.
Given the high stakes, operators and vendors should be involved in the standards process from the inception of an idea, through early socialization, to the more formal forums, recommendations, through the standards process and into the networks. Missing any of these steps increases one’s risk.
The market presents enough risks. This is one that can be managed.
Victor Blake is an independent consultant.