Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Quality, Standardization, and MH17

We live in a complicated world; events overtake events.  Today we are learning more about the blasting of a Malaysian airplane out of the sky, killing 300 people.  It must be horrible for the families, friends and colleagues of the people killed.  

There are so many moving parts to this tragedy.  If the airline had flown a different route, If two neighbouring countries were not in dispute, if rebels weren’t committed to shooting airplanes out of the sky, if countries had not provided them with sophisticated arms capable of pinpointing targets 33,000 feet away, things might have been different.  

Many of the people on board were en route to the 20th Annual Meeting for HIV, this year in Melbourne, which got me thinking about the risks associated with work related travel.  

In the last while there have been a number of airplane mishaps including for example Malaysian Airlines 370 (the missing airplane) and a series of near misses in airports across the United States and around the world.  I understand that people make choices but I wonder how often travel related risk ever rises to a level of conscious consideration when it comes to attending meetings.  

This is not a new theme for me; I was one of the organizing committee that had planned an international conference on proficiency testing for September 21, 2001 (The meeting was postponed for a year).  I have also spent most of my career attending international conferences in microbiology and standards development.  

This is only a guestimate but there are approximately 300 organizing and technical committees associated with the International Organization for Standardization.  If on average each TC has 80 regular attenders going to ISO plenary meetings; that would represent some 24,000 annual travellers.  If in addition, each of those TC has 4 workgroups or subcommittees that meet annually with 25 people attending, this would mean an additional 30,000 annual world travelers, adding up to over 50,000 world travellers attending ISO related meetings.  

So, taking aside the costs associated with 50,000 annual travelers (well in excess of $100,000,000!) one has to wonder about whether or not it is time to re-evaluate the role and necessity of routine travel to attend standards development meetings.

So with this in mind, I argue the most common reasons that travel related on-site meetings are regularly held.

A: The most important part about meetings is that people meet. 
This is the most compelling argument for on-site meetings.  People of like mind get together.  Sometimes the creative spark occurs and new ideas are spawned.  In my experience these moments do occur, albeit rarely.  Most of the time is consumed with pretty routine discussion and social interactions among friends.  But people do meet and sometimes brilliant things do happen.

B: Meetings are more productive when you can see the folks face-to-face.
This is dubious at best and nonsense at worst.  In the standards development process, when people get together we see the whole array of behaviours, many counterproductive.  For every one person who comes prepared and has read the documents there are multiple others who have not.  The process of consensus is often over ridden by the loudest voice, or the orchestrated voice, and the silencing of the ignored voice.  All too often documents are created despite the meeting rather than because of the meeting.

C: Meetings create opportunity for all to attend and participate in one place and one time.
It is true that finding an on-line time that works for all is difficult when meetings involve people around the world.  Just finding a meeting time across Canada with 5 time zones can be a challenge.  But the reality is that in-face on-site  meetings are only meetings of the rich, and exclude people from developing countries.  Countries that are looking for benefit from standards rarely get the opportunity to attend because they are far too expensive, and their issues never get raised.  

Documents are the product of wealthy countries and deal solely with wealthy country issues.  That may not be a bad thing, but we do need to be honest about who is at the table and whose issues are addressed. 

D:  Electronic meetings are rarely effective.
This is patently not true.  Electronic document writing can be done asynchronously within specific time frames, but within each person’s own time zone.  Software exists that allows each person to comment on the same parent document with the ability to add comments and revisions but not alter the original version.  At one time this was a real challenge, but today it is commonplace and affordable world-wide.  At the end of the time frame, the team lead integrates the comments and revisions and creates the next version (keeping in mind the importance of document control).
The point that I am making is that today when it comes to the development of international standards we have choice and how we go about the process.  It is nice and social that the group gets together on a regular (annual or bi-annual basis) but is hardly necessary.  Without forcing a decision, let me argue that regular on-site meetings are expensive, exclusionary, and no more effective or efficient than electronic alternatives, and yes, maybe in a small way increase unnecessary personal risk.

It may be time to start looking to change.


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