Standardization News

Enhancing Your Role as a Standards Professional

Jeffrey Strauss

Part 1: The Elevator Speech

You know your participation in standards development is critical to your company, but does your company recognize this? Do you have the support and resources you need? Here's how to develop a quick summary of what you do and what you need that top-level executives will hear and understand.

For years, standards professionals and organizations have extolled the benefits of standards and the value of active participation in standards setting. But when it comes to C-suite executives, these arguments can fall on deaf ears as they sometimes have little direct experience with standards and may not see their critical connection to strategic position.

This gap can keep standards professionals from their company's strategic planning table, limiting their impact and value - and their career paths.

This article, the first of a series on enhancing your role as a standards professional, will help you develop an appeal to your executive's interests with an "elevator speech" - a quick and effective description of:

  • How standards connect with executive concerns and
  • What standards professionals need from their organizations and leaders to make the most of their participation in standards setting.

Future articles will discuss how you can contribute to, and learn from, widely practiced strategic processes and tools; standards negotiation requirements and organizational input that may be needed to guide your participation in standards setting; and approaches to training that will strengthen your skills in standards work.

How Do You Define Your Work?

Let's begin by defining standards. Then we'll briefly review the frequently noted benefits of standardization before recasting them in terms of pressing executive concerns.

First, let's be frank: for non-standards professionals, standards are often preconceived to be boring and appropriately relegated to engineers or lawyers who, for varying reasons, can be spared or assigned to do standards work.

The task of defining standards is not trivial, as the term can refer to everything from codes of ethics to educational grading criteria to technical specifications. At the Center for Technology and Innovation Management at Northwestern University, we use the following definition, which is based on varied sources:

A standard is a documented and industry/market applied agreement containing uniform engineering or technical guidelines to ensure that materials, products, processes, practices and/or services can be consistently produced and used and remain adequate for their purpose within a given context. This includes ensuring safety and enabling required interoperability with other materials, products, processes, etc.

A simpler and more enticing definition might be:

Standards are the agreed-on rules of the competitive game for products, technologies and services. They form the needed bridges from technology to strategy, legacies to innovation, product to market, corporations to their ecosystems and industry to government.

The benefits of standards include:

  • Enhanced safety, interoperability (potentially supporting modularity), efficiency and flexibility.
  • Cost reductions achieved by enabling the use of multiple vendors who meet the same standard and aligning supply chains through a common language and understanding of requirements.
  • Reduced real and perceived risk, which gives investors confidence.
  • The stimulation of innovation by enabling platforms, supporting subsequent generations of innovation, and ensuring that innovations will work with legacy infrastructure and systems, potentially reducing the cost of change.

Participating in setting standards allows a company to promote its strategic agenda and influence standards, but it also enables relationship building, the assessment of competitors' strengths and vulnerabilities, the testing of ideas, and intelligence about evolving technologies and alliances.

In my work and teaching, I stress presenting the value of standards in the context of emerging high priority areas. Thus, another way to consider and discuss standards is with an example such as the modernized electrical grid, or smart grid. Here, standards are critical in:

  • Providing essential common data formats, controls and performance measures for devices, systems, sensors and organizations (including multiple vendors).
  • Defining the consensus selection of a development path. There are currently multiple uncertain development paths with changing technologies, changing energy mixes and changing policies. (The next article in this series will discuss the application of scenario planning, among other tools.)
  • Acting as vehicles for companies to balance individual strategic and operational requirements with environmental and efficiency initiatives.
  • Supporting innovation through confidence that new products, technologies and processes will be compatible with legacy systems, infrastructure and vendor capabilities, and will be accepted in the market.
  • Supporting the development of reporting requirements that recognize varying levels of understanding, contexts and proprietary concerns.

What Does Your CEO Want to Hear?

While clearly relevant, observations such as these may not address an executive's specific concerns. When asked what keeps them up at night, surveyed CEOs identified the need to:

  • Sustain business growth;
  • Build and maintain investor and customer confidence;
  • Enhance supplier coordination and alignment (i.e., enable resilience); and
  • Comply with regulations.

Issues underlying these concerns include selecting technology paths and keeping up with technological change, positioning for emerging and converging technologies, transitioning from legacy systems, managing risk, and establishing and maintaining agility and robust platforms.

The sidebar (below), "The Contribution of Standards," illustrates the potential contribution that standards can make to alleviating these concerns and suggests how to frame discussion. The standards contribution can be enhanced by improved integration into broader management processes, including input into the use of such planning and analytic tools as roadmapping, scenario planning and others (as will be discussed in Part 2 of this series).

Think about the proper focus, context and timing for discussing standardization with your executive team to maximize their response. The sidebar (below), "Communicating Your Value," suggests appropriate topics for discussion. Executives are likely to be most receptive:

  • When significant projects and products are in the works or are being reviewed so that there is a high level of recognized strategic importance. Where there is a good deal of uncertainty as, for example, when underlying technologies or market conditions are in flux.
  • When there is concern over resistance from, or poor clarity and communication with, partners or suppliers.
  • When the input you need from across your organization (or perhaps from your suppliers) is highly complex.
  • When there are evident gaps in enabling standards, fear that competitors may be able to significantly influence standards, or the threat of regulatory oversight if voluntary standards are not established.

The final aspect of the elevator speech is defining and conveying what you need to do your job effectively.

  • Among your key responsibilities are determining and assessing current relevant standards and gaps, selecting committees in which to participate; and effectively negotiating new or modified standards. For this, you need to clearly understand what matters to your organization, now and in the future.
  • As a standards professional, you need - and probably already have - a special blend of skills and sensitivity to both technical and strategic issues. But you also need significant cross-organizational input - from R&D, design and engineering, marketing, technology and product management, and strategic planning groups, including alliance and supply chain planning.
  • Effective negotiation requires clear authority to represent your organization.
  • You need sustained support to build your reputation and relationships. It can be difficult to rebuild your position if your engagement is interrupted because of inconsistent organizational support.

By presenting standards and your work in terms of your CEO's pressing concerns and high potential organizational targets, and detailing what you need to maximize your value, you can become an integral part of strategic planning. Only then can you achieve the potential of your role.

In the next issue we will dig into how standards work can, and should, be incorporated into common strategic processes and, bridging to the third article, how these processes can, in turn, enhance standards setting.

The Contribution of Standards

Executive Concerns

  • Sustaining business growth
  • Selecting technology path
  • Keeping up with technology change
  • Managing risk

How Standards Alleviate Concerns

  • Reveal expert consensus on technology options and paths
  • Support performance measures, translating qualitative demands into concrete indicators and solutions
  • Support common risk vocabulary and enable a more efficient and coordinated repsonse to threats
  • Can integrate with risk management processes
  • Stimulate favorable standards and offset negative regulations

Executive Concerns

  • Building and maintaining investor and customer confidence
  • Enhancing supplier coordination and alignment
  • Regulatory compliance

How Standards Alleviate Concerns

  • Give confidence in technology safety, quality and interoperability
  • Expose change variables and interoperability requirements
  • Enable transition from legacy systems
  • Enhance visibility throughout the organization as well as planning and coordination by ensuring a common understanding of requirements and consistency of data and its quality and formats in support of analysis

Communicating Your Value

Standards are most likely to be recognized as critical to your company when:

  • Supply chain communication and coordination is complex (number/levels of suppliers, technical content, market channel complexity, extent of difference from past experiences)
  • There are gaps in relevant current standards
  • There is a threat of regulation
  • Strategy depends on favorable standards

Your role will be most recognized as critical when:

  • There is uncertainty around technology development and potential for multiple paths
  • Your competitors are influencing standards
  • Functions across the organization are impacted and need a coordinated approach

At Northwestern University for 30 years, Jeffrey Strauss is acting director of the Center for Technology and Innovation Management within the university-wide Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Studies, Global Engagement and Scholarship; he has responsibility for activity involving industry. Strauss spearheads initiatives supported by the National Institute of Standards and Technology to develop teaching modules and exercises and to conduct industry-academic workshops that enhance attention to standards in business and engineering curricula. Strauss teaches graduate, undergraduate and continuing education courses. He is vice chairman for the Americas in the International Cooperation for Education about Standardization.
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