Without Standards, be They Industrial or Proprietary, Internal or External, Things Simply don’t work at Scale
We are now back on standard time. Most of us in the United States set our clocks an hour earlier the first weekend in November (though some geographic outliers still exist). Like me, many of you got to sleep a little later, relishing that lovely gift of an “extra hour” – or, more accurately, the return of that hour stolen from us last March when we “sprang forward.”
What strikes me is the curious irony in the terminology. In a given year, we are actually on non-standard time longer than standard time. With 238 days on daylight saving time and only 127 days on standard time, nearly two-thirds of the year is now non-standard. That raises the question, What is standard anyway?
In the data and technology space, we deal with standards all the time. Standards from sources: industry, vertical, defacto, internal, proprietary, and – my favorite oxymoron – custom standards. There are delivery standards, process standards, communication protocol standards. There are standard data models, standard data structures, and standard data content. As the old saying goes, The beauty of standards is there are so many to choose from.
Without standards, be they industrial or proprietary, internal or external, things simply don’t work at scale. Systems can’t connect across providers, numbers don’t add up. Well before our digital age, standards created a world where things could work in concert. The Romans set a standard for chariot width (that evolved into the width of modern-day standard-gauge train tracks). The industrial revolution forced the need for mechanical standards – for instance, nuts and bolts that work together. The ubiquitous UPC bar code ensures that lots of products can be purchased from nearly every retailer across many different systems, that ever-present “beep” at the register confirming “things connect.” Its digital use cases as an item identifier are seemingly endless.
In my decades-long career selling master data content from iconic data providers, I’ve had the fortune to work with a number of standards. Today at Dun & Bradstreet, I proudly represent and reinforce the value of the D-U-N-S® Number as the global business entity standard. My first experience in the space was as the visionary behind TDLinx – the location standard from the company now known as Nielsen. I have also worked with standards bodies and consulted for data companies that aspire to “become the standard.” In my travels across the globe visiting enterprises of all types across every industry, I have noticed a common and consistent theme – multiple systems and workflows create disparate data sources with differing definitions that lack internal standards. Based on that experience, here are few things I have learned about standards.
It’s a tale of many tongues
You will need more formal methods to translate and create interoperability between vertical standards. In many industries, vertical industry standards are mandatory. And they work. But it is hard enough to get a true vertical standard to do what it is intended much less expand beyond that specific use case. The bigger your enterprise, the more of these “languages” you may need to learn and incorporate. Peter Lucas, in his book Trillions: Thriving in the Emerging Information Ecology, clearly recognizes that “standardization efforts underway within the relevant industry trade groups are proceeding with little thought to how such standards might fit into a larger ecology.”
Easy to say, hard to do
Many startups I’ve worked with – their focus intent on some sort of disruptive opportunity – would cavalierly conclude, “Oh and after we do all that we can also become the standard! Everyone will use us for blah!” My counsel was always, “Wait up, gang.” Setting standards is not for dabblers. It’s harder than you think. It takes universal coverage and a mindset for universality. It takes industrial strength technology and strategic fortitude coupled with a commitment for the long haul. If you want people to depend on you, you have to prove you will be there.
Don’t forget the vision thing
My fellow master data zealot Harold Geller has worked tirelessly to create a standard in the Advertising Space call Ad-ID, “the industry standard for identifying advertising assets across all media platforms.” We have always shared a common vision of seamless integration and interoperability in our respective spaces. If you are unsure of the business value coming from standards, seek out those thought leaders in your space. It is their job to take the technical requirements and elevate them to succinct, world-changing elevator pitches. GS1, the governing body for the aforementioned UPC, positions itself as “The Global Language of Business.” ASTM International manages industrial and manufacturing standards with the aim of “helping our world work better.”
Everyone does want to see things one way – their way!
Your sales, marketing, and finance departments and external agency partners all have their own viewpoints – even about the most basic of business relationships like customer, vendor, partner, and product. Getting on that same page isn’t just a throwaway metaphor. If you can’t agree to common definitions about your most critical and valuable business relationships, how are you going manage them?
Sorry, but there isn’t just one universal way
Just like there will never be a single retailer or brand owner or media company, there will never be a single software platform or a sole data provider. There is no one way. So the real challenge, the real opportunity, the real magic is the ability to move across them all. Existing internal operating systems may already have their own codes and identifiers. Many legacy (and even evolving technologies) create new views and nomenclature. For interoperability to scale in the modern connected economy, there will need to be methods and practices that work vertical to vertical, ecosystem to ecosystem, industry to industry, and market to market. Because once we understand each other, there is so much more we can do.
And that, at least, will never change. What do you think? What are your experiences, challenges, and successes in dealing with or setting standards in your organization and across your partners?