What are Standards?

Standards represent “accepted ways of doing things” and can be defined as sets or features of characteristics that describe products, processes, services or concepts. (National Research Council, 2005) Alternatively, standards can be described as “rules, regulations, and frameworks intended to enable individuals, groups, organizations, countries and nations to achieve goals.” (Spivak & Brenner, 2001) According to these authors, there are five types of standards: 1) physical or measurement standards; 2) standards for symbols, meanings and language; 3) standards for products and processes, including test validation, quality assurance, and operating procedures; 4) standards for systems (including management systems and regulatory systems); and 5) standards for health, safety, the environment and for ensuring other consumer interests. Standards may be compulsory (as in the case of legal and regulatory standards, such as the Sarbanes-Oxley requirements for financial reporting) or voluntarily adopted (as in the case of product interface standards such as USB for computer peripherals).

Because standards are a mechanism used by social groups to promote norms, and to facilitate the creation of artifacts that advance human capabilities, standards are technologies. (Recall that Random House defines technology as “The sum of the ways in which social groups provide themselves with the material objects of their civilizations.”)

What can standards do for you and your projects? The importance of standards can be explained in terms of the eight goals that standards can be used to achieve (Blind, 2004):

  • Compatibility – facilitating cooperation between people, processes, systems, or technologies
  • Communication – facilitates information flow between people, processes, systems or technologies
  • Conformance – provides a common basis to establish competency or define excellence
  • Continuous Improvement – helps organizations leverage the “lessons learned” that are imbued within the standards
  • Establish Order – promotes consistency, reliability and effective communications
  • Prescribe Behavior – enables organizations to reduce variability between people and systems
  • Promote Social Order – establishes a basis for legal and ethical behavior
  • Establish Shared Meaning – provides a context for communication, compatibility and conformance

A standard is “working” if it accomplishes one or more of these goals (depending, of course, on how relevant and pertinent the goals are to the project that is being pursued). For example, it’s probably not very important for two computer devices to “promote social order” if they need to communicate. But it’s definitely important for people.

Blind, K. (2003). The economics of standards. Kluwer Academic Press.
National Research Council. (1995). Standards, conformity assessment and trade. National Academy Press.
Spivak, L. & Brenner, F.C. (2001). Standardization essentials: principles and practice. Marcel Dekker.

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