Thursday, June 20, 2013

Who should be Writing Standards?

Who should be Writing Standards

For some of us who spend time being involved in writing standards with various organizations, it starts to take on a certain repetitive rhythm and routine.  For the most part we work our way through even the most complex of subjects and end up with  credible documents in anywhere from 9 to 12 months.  For more contentious areas or new areas, the time may be a little longer, but it would be a very rare situation where it would take more than 18 months.

I contrast that with the initial writing of ISO 15189:2003 (Medical Laboratories – Particular requirements for quality and competence).  I am mind boggled when I think back and realize that the initial creation phase of that document took from 1995 through 2002, a stunning seven years.  Now I know that ISO is supposed to be like the Canadian Senate, the house of “sober [in this context meaning knowledgeable, objective and unbiased] second thought” and that the point of the exercise is not to do it fast, but to do it right; but the reality was that at the end of that seven year journey, we had an interesting and useful, but very flawed document.  It may have been second thought, but I am less sure about the sober part.

Today the need and demand for standards is growing rapidly and the need for a more realistic turnaround time is both required and essential.  

There is however a compounding factor, and that is that many of the people who have learned through the process are starting to be of the “greying” set.  I suspect the median age of standard developers is something close to 55 years with 20 years of experience.  That group is slowly becoming less reliable for a number of reasons.  Many are starting to think about retirement and may want to continue on in standards writing more as a hobby or past-time which is not a good idea.  The problem is that often even though they (we) are still involved in work they may be less involved in innovation and change.  There is a sense that the way we used to it, is still the way it should be done, and that through standards we can perpetuate that approach, even though it is no longer practical or effective (dare I say obsolete).  Worse, as they leave work, their connection with new technologies grows more distant, and their efforts become ever more marginal. 

Respect for age and wisdom can and should have both a “best before” and an “expiry” date.
On the other hand, attracting young people (“kids”?)  early on is not much help either.  Sure they have age (youth) and imagination and maybe idealism on their side, but rarely is it tempered with knowledge or experience or insight.     Standards development requires knowledge, and an understanding of how the world and its sub-sets works.  Standards development requires, indeed demands experience and expertise.  Period.

So where do you find the best of both worlds, young enough to be enthusiastic and open to innovation, but old enough to have knowledge and insight; someone who knows what standards are and how they can and should be used.  Someone who is in a position to likely grow into standards development over a couple of decades.  

And here is the answer: look to the students like those in my UBC Certificate Course for Laboratory Quality Management.  

These are all people with a minimum of 5 years of on-the-job work experience who know what they are supposed to be doing.  Importantly they have been around enough not only to know the right way to get things done, they also have pretty good insights as to what are the wrong ways.  More importantly these are people who self-selected themselves to be interested in the domain of Quality and Standards and Management.  Not every employee becomes interested in those aspects of work; lots of very good employees are “just in it for the money”.  But folks taking extra continuing education programs in the domain of Quality, often on their own time, are much more likely to have the requisite passion to want to do things better, and to be “in it to win it”.  

And these are the ideal folks to be getting engaged in standards development; young enough to be keen, experienced enough to be knowledgeable, and motivated enough to be engaged. 
You can call that the winning combination.

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