Why Standardization Efforts Fail

Standardization is a poorly understood discipline in practice. While there are excellent studies of standardization as an economic phenomenon, or as technical a phenomenon, or as a policy initiative, most of these are ex post facto and written from a dispassionate academic view. They are of little help to practitioners who actually are using and creating standards. The person actually creating the standards is working in an area of imperfect knowledge, high economic incentives, changing relationships, and often, short-range planning. The ostensible failure of a standard has to be examined not so much from the focus of whether the standard or specification was written or even implemented (the usual metric), but rather from the viewpoint of whether the participants achieved their goals from their participation in the standardization process. To achieve this, various examples are used to illustrate how expectations from a standardization process may vary, so that what is perceived as a market failure may very well be a signal success for some of the participants. The paper is experientially, not empirically based, and relies on my observations as an empowered, embedded, and occasionally neutral observer in the Information Technology standardization arena. Because of my background, the paper does have a focus on computing standards, rather than publishing standards. However, from what I have observed, the lessons learned apply equally to all standardization activities, from heavy machinery to quality to publishing. Standards names may vary; human nature doesn’t.