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Conformance: The “Magic” of Standards

In a recent tweet, I wrote:

“There is no magic in standards. The magic is where conformance integrates with how you do business. Anything less is wasted time & money!”


Actually, I’ve been saying that for a long time. It’s been true all along.

Why do I say that? Let’s have a look…

During the course of any given day, I see a lot of activity on Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media regarding “standards”. Now, you might think that I am just talking about ISO 20000, because of my interest in Service Management (as compared to IT Service Management, but that’s a different post entirely), but you’d be mistaken.

In these posts and questions, I see people extolling the virtues of various standards and talking about how important that they are. It’s not that I have a problem with standards themselves, because I don’t. I am a firm believer in standards and believe that they are an important part of an organizations ability to respond thoughtfully to the challenges that they face.

For the moment, I am going to defer discussion of the standards process in general — how authors are selected to participate in the development of standards, how standards actually come into being, the management of standards across their lifecycle and so on. That is a whole topic unto itself for another day and many more postings.

But I know from the work that I do with the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), as a member of the International Conformity Assessment Committee, the real magic (if there really is any “magic” at all) isn’t in the standard — it’s in conformance!

What is a “standard”?

What is relevant to my original tweet and what I see in the forums is of primary interest here. Where I do start to take issue is with the almost magical powers that people associate with them — much of this resulting from a misunderstanding of what standards are. Let’s look at the definition for the term “standard”:

3: something established by authority, custom, or general consent as a model or example : criterion <quite slow by today’s standards>4: something set up and established by authority as a rule for the measure of quantity, weight, extent, value, or quality


Regardless of the organization that promoting them, you’ll notice that these two definitions are present in almost every other, in one form or another. Unlike what some would have you believe, standards are not best practice! When you get right down to it, they really represent the least practice that the authors of a standard can agree upon, because national and international standards are based upon and formed by consensus. What we see in a published standard is a reference for one way that a given area can work.

There are a few points worth noting that make dealing with standards challenging:

Every standard has a point of view from which it makes sense.

Now, that sounds rather bad or ominous, doesn’t it? Well, it may, but it’s not. It’s just a fact.

Every standard has some underlying set of concepts, practices or industry knowledge at its foundation. That’s why we can actually have a standards process that is based in consensus, because there is agreement throughout a given segment of the market of what common practice is.

Without it, it would be nearly impossible to have standards. It’s also important to recognize that standards will actually make use of or reference other standards (including terms, definitions and other elements). So, as you can see, just understanding the standard under consideration isn’t enough. There’s a wide arrange of influencing factors that need to be included as well.

Idealized views of how an organization can/should operate.

Given we are talking about common practice, minimal capability level or “lowest common denominator”, we need to realize that there are sets of organizational, behavioral, task, data flow, communication and other models at work.

This does not mean that you should do a wholesale “adopt and adapt” with regards to your structures and operating practices. It’s as ludicrous to do this with standards as it is for best practice frameworks. Why do I say this? Because standards lack context — and context is everything! In the end, each organization needs to consider why this specific standard is important and what the fit with the existing organization is and what its goals are.

Absent this, you could actually be adopting practices and organizational structures which do more harm to you and those you serve than maintaining the status quo.

Answering the question — “why do/should we care?”

Asking the question “Why is conformance to this standard important to you?” isn’t merely rhetorical. Indeed, quite the opposite. In going down this path, you really need to have a keen awareness about why it is important to you and your organization. Why? Demonstrating conformance to standards is not a trivial activity. It takes time, money and effort. So the question “why go to all the trouble?” should be one that you are prepared to answer/address.

What benefit or gain do you expect?

  • Favorable treatment as a supplier? (e.g. preference when bidding on government contracts)
  • Enhancing your organizations public image?
  • Internal process and quality improvement efforts?
  • Regulatory requirements?
  • Other?

Examining the basis for acting is important, as it will help you see your way clearly to justifying why conformance to standards is in the best interests of your organization.


In the end, there’s really no magic to standards. The magic comes from doing the hard work of doing what’s needed to allow your organization to demonstrate conformance to the standard.

By being clear about:

  • Your overriding organizational objectives
  • The intention and specifics of the standard in question, as applied to your organization
  • Evaluating the impact of the required changes, if any, prior to implementing them

You should be able to determine a proper and timely means of being able to leverage standards within your organization.

Posted InStandards
Tags UsedANSI, Conformance, ISO, ISO20000, ISO20K
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