Why IT Standards Fail


"It is one thing to enact legislation, quite another to enforce it."
- Bryce's Law

Not long ago Shane "Locutus" Shields wrote an interesting blog entitled, "What is the use of standards?" whereby he expressed his disillusionment with standards in the Information Technology (I.T.) field. His discontent is not without precedence. Most of us have at one time or another yearned for standards in our work effort, only to be thwarted by the grim realities of an industry that doesn't like to embrace standards. We all admit standards are a good idea and we should all be heading in that direction, someday... but that day never seems to come because there are forces at play deliberately resisting such efforts.

First, the primary reason for standards is to seek some sort of conformity in our work effort. Such uniformity simplifies product development, maintenance, usability, and, God forbid, the interchangabiity of component parts. Standards materially improves communications between people and saves time, simply because everyone has accepted and adapted to the standard, thereby causing them to communicate on a common level (aka, "on the same page"). Imagine where the entertainment industry would be today if there were no standards in musical composition. People would have to reinvent the expression of music with each new song. But because we took the time to develop standards, musical composition can be read and written by anyone on the planet. This also means standards can be taught and applied on a universal basis.

Standards also provides a means to measure work effort, which is one reason why some people object to them. Instead of performing in a uniform manner that can be compared and contrasted to others, some I.T. people prefer nonconformity to cloak their work effort in secrecy, thereby clouding comparisons. The excuse from such people is that they do not want to be "encumbered" or "stifled" by standards. In reality, they are just trying to protect their job.

Without standards, cooperation and communications between parties breaks down. From this we can deduce that standards is an inherent part of teamwork. Instead of the chaos involved in a heterogeneous environment (where everyone is allowed to "do their own thing"), standards offers the tranquility of a homogeneous environment where people are all "rowing on the same oar" in a concerted manner. From this perspective, it could easily be argued that standards promotes productivity in the workplace. This means standards require an intuitive manager who understands the value of teamwork and uniformity in work effort. Unfortunately, most managers today still prefer "rugged individualism" instead, representing the antithesis of teamwork.

Another problem facing standards is the reality that whoever dominates market share becomes the de facto standard and jealously defends it from intruders. We have seen this on more than one occasion in the I.T. field and frankly there is little we can be do about it. We could turn to government agencies to act as arbitrators, but they have not proven to be an effective vehicle for the establishment of standards, at least in the I.T. field. Instead, a coalition of industry related companies would perhaps be a better alternative, with maybe some government prodding to move things along.

But my biggest concern in terms of standards is their enforcement. I think we are now at a point in the I.T. industry where we must admit standards are useless without some form of automation to substantiate adherence to them. Over the years I have seen numerous attempts at standardization in the I.T. field and those that are simply enforced by human judgment, such as through a bureaucratic processes, inevitably dies a slow death. Without some form of automation to validate conformity to standards, the human being will find a way to avoid complying with them. Sad, but true.

One of the benefits of growing older is that your hindsight becomes clearer. Although I have seen numerous attempts at standardization in the I.T. field, it is hard to find any true standards as vendors have all put their own unique spin on it. For example, COBOL was intended to be the first universal programming language but this never happened as hardware manufacturers implemented their own nuances in their compilers, thereby creating multiple interpretations of COBOL. Perhaps the only true standard I've come across in this industry was ASCII text which was invented by Robert W. Beamer.

Back in 1970 my father first called for industry-wide standards for the development of systems. This was done at the annual convention of the old Data Processing Management Association (DPMA; now the Association of Information Technology Professionals - AITP). At the time, DPMA was a powerhouse in terms of size and resources and could have easily undertaken such an effort but, unfortunately, balked at doing so, as has numerous other industry associations.

One recent attempt has been the "Business Analysis Body of Knowledge" (BABOK) by the International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA), which is an interesting set of tips and techniques, but is certainly no means a body of standards. For example, there is no defined conceptual foundation or glossary of terms defining such fundamental concepts as "system," "business process," "procedure," "software," "information," "data," etc. These are all taken for granted and it assumes everyone has the same interpretation (which they most certainly do not). Although it is well meaning, it misses the mark. Without a conceptual foundation, the techniques embodied in the document, are like trying to build an atomic bomb without first knowing E = MC2.


Standardization offers the benefits of uniformity, predictability, interchangeability, and harmony. If this is not of interest to you, than there is little point in trying to participate in a standards program. But if you do wish to participate, understand there is more to implementing standards than to just say "that's just how it is going to be done." There has to be some sound rationale for their governance. In addition, you must address the enforcement issue. Standards will be adhered to by the degree of discipline instilled in the staff; If well disciplined, your chances for success are good, but if discipline is lax, automation is required to assure standards are being followed.

If you would like to discuss this with me in more depth, please do not hesitate to send me an e-mail.

Keep the faith.


About the Author

Tim Bryce is a writer and management consultant with M. Bryce & Associates of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the field. He is available for lecturing, training and consulting on an international basis. He can be reached at [email protected]
Comments and questions are welcome.

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Copyright © 2008 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.



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