Why Standards Are Important

Most of us in the commercial AV industry have read the following release by now from InfoComm:

"In October 2006, InfoComm announced that it is applying for ANSI accreditation for its Certified Technology Specialist (CTS) certifications under ISO 17024. This is a program to assure the public and the CTS certification holders that InfoComm is applying 'best practices' to the administration of the CTS program. Certification is a very important issue to the CTS holder, the company they work for, and the customer, and InfoComm wants to assure all stakeholders that its program is of the highest quality which measures the actual skills and knowledge needed in the industry. Accreditation by ANSI will signify that InfoComm's certification procedures meet the American National Standards Institute's (ANSI) essential requirements for openness, balance, consensus and due process in accordance with the ISO 17024 standard."

My guess is that the majority of us simply glossed over this announcement, or for those who did read it in depth, we simply thought it was another procedural issue that InfoComm would employ as the organization enters into the next phase of growth. Wrong! Sorry for being so blunt, but this is a very important issue that involves each and every one of use in the AV industry. This is but the first of a two-step approach by InfoComm on behalf of our industry. The first initiative secures the process of earning a CTS industry certification, and while this security is a necessary, it is only the beginning. Perhaps the most interesting ISO-ANSI initiative is its second program that adds the credibility of ISO-ANSI in the area of performance standards.
Please permit me to explain further about ISO-ANSI and why the setting of standards outside of any single individual group or organization is so important.

Several people have commented to me that all of this "standards business" is just a way for organizations to make money. When I asked Randal A. Lemke, the executive director of InfoComm, about this he told me that if profit were the motivation, the association probably would have done it years ago. He went on to say that the performance standards programs are budgeted to annually loose money as there is no product or service to sell, and regarding the ANSI accreditation of the CTS process, the proceeds of this program goes back into industry programs. Profits are simply not the motivation, although there is nothing wrong with the concept of making money, especially if the end result benefits the industry as a whole.

Life Without Standards
For my retort to the naysayers, let's begin by looking at the world's largest and most respected developer of standards, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and its approach to the topic of standardization. In its organization overview, it asks a very fundamental question: What if standards did not exist? I think the answer is not only germane but thought provoking as well:

"If there were no standards, we would soon notice. Standards make an enormous contribution to most aspects of our lives-although very often, that contribution is invisible. It is when there is an absence of standards that their importance is brought home. For example, as purchasers or users of products, we soon notice when they turn out to be of poor quality, do not fit, are incompatible with equipment we already have, are unreliable or dangerous. When products meet our expectations, we tend to take this for granted. We are usually unaware of the role played by standards in raising levels of quality, safety, reliability, efficiency and interchangeability-as well as in providing such benefits at an economical cost."

Just stop and think about not having standards in various industries for one minute. The implications are enormous. Without the positive influence of standards in science and technology development, along with manufacturing and distribution, we would flounder in a sea of random actions addressing the market without real focus or constraints. We would lack accepted methods and the results from such approaches are not capable of truly being forecast let alone controlled. The end results are rarely if ever what they need to be.

International Solutions
ISO officially began back in 1947 but has it roots all the way back to 1906. It is a network of national standards institutes in 157 countries setup on the basis of one member group per country with its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. ANSI is the ISO member from the United States. ISO is a non-governmental organization, but some members are mandated by their respective governments while others are totally separate bodies made up of coalitions of industry organizations. ISO sees itself as a "bridging organization in which a consensus can be reached on solutions that meet both the requirements of business and the broader needs of society, such as the needs of stakeholder groups like consumers and users."

What does international standardization mean? ISO is not a formal regulatory agency, and it is strictly voluntary with no legal authority to enforce its implementations, but to be accurate, it is becoming a market requirement as in the case of the ISO 9000 quality management in manufacturing standards. Its recommendations and implementations are born out of market demands. Widespread acceptance of standardization is achieved through consensus agreements between national ISO members representing all the "economic stakeholders" such as concerned suppliers, users, government regulators and other interest groups, not the least of which are consumers. The participants reach consensus on specifications and the criteria to be applied consistently in each area including the classification of materials, the manufacture and supply of products, testing and analysis procedures, terminology and in the provision of services such as the new InfoComm initiative. In this way, international standards provide a reference framework and a common language and understanding of the expected outcome between suppliers and their customers. Obviously this is not a static process, and ISO recognizes that the concept of standardization is an evolving process and reviews each standard at least every five years, or more often if conditions mandate a more frequent review.

ISO standards are developed by committees referred to as delegations, comprised of experts from the business sectors that have asked for the standards. These delegations are required to represent not just the views of the organizations in which their participating experts work, but of other interested and involved parties as well. According to its rules, the ISO member organization, in this case ANSI, is expected to take account of the views of the range of parties interested in the standard under development and to present a consolidated, national consensus position to the technical committee. The ISO-ANSI technical committee meets to discuss, debate and argue until they reach consensus on a draft agreement. The draft agreement is sent to the membership, and after all voices have been heard, the decision to adopt or not is made.

Defining Moment
As we have seen, standards are important for numerous reasons, not the least of which is that they clearly define a given profession. As an example, look at the AIA for architects or the AMA for doctors or the American Bar Association for the legal profession. As in the examples given, standards permit a profession to regulate itself and the members of that association. A critical point is that they help to express the profession's responsibility to the public which is perhaps one of the most important steps in differentiation a job form a profession. This new ISO-ANSI program from InfoComm will provide the industry for the first time with internationally recognized performance standards that AV companies can build their systems to meet, and at the same time, provide a sense of trust for the industry's customers that there are clear industry standards on which they can rely.

Doing It Right
InfoComm has dedicated significant resources in time and money to engage in the complex process of becoming recognized by the ISO-ANSI international standards community. In talking to key members of the management team at InfoComm, they are determined to "do it right" for the benefit of the entire industry because in their minds we must establish accepted parameters from which to work and this is the most effective way to progress as an industry and as individual companies within that industry. Taking the leadership role is not easy, but InfoComm clearly sees the need and is demonstrating its dedication to that end.