Minimal IT logo and link to home page
Research, training, consultancy and software to reduce IT costs
Home | About | Newsletter | Contact
Previous | Next Printer friendly
19 February 2008

Standards - consensus or competition?

By Andrew Clifford

Standards are too important to be monopolies. We need to introduce more competition into standards so that they can be adopted more widely.

Standards like ITIL, COBIT, and many of the ISO standards, contain excellent material for IT management. But there are problems. The standards are not well understood by many IT managers. They can seem bureaucratic and cumbersome. They are not as widely adopted as they could be, especially in smaller organisations.

Working with standards can be frustrating. Many of them have to be paid for. None of them allow you to freely modify and distribute derivative works.

There are good reasons why standards are restricted, paid-for products.

  • Creating and distributing standards is expensive, and needs to be financed. Paying for standards makes people take them seriously. The costs are trivial to anyone who is serious about using standards.
  • Creating and distributing derivative works would undermine the rigour of standards, and threaten the revenues from official versions.

Of course there is a downside.

  • Any payment, however small, discourages casual use. In large organisations, only specialists bother to make the case for expenditure. The costs can be a barrier for small companies and for individual practitioners. The standards are not opened up to a more general readership.
  • Because standards remain the domain of specialists, and specialists are enthusiasts for their subject, there is little demand for more generally accessible standards.
  • Although standards can be tailored within an organisation, you can not republish derivatives. There is no way to challenge the standards by promoting variants, other than through official processes.
  • Unlike standards which specify products, management standards are products-in-themselves that squeeze out competition and create monopolies in their subject.

The people who develop standards are dedicated and have a passion for excellence. But their efforts are not as widely appreciated as they could be. How can we make better use of all this good work?

Standards have rich processes for contribution, review and building consensus. But to make standards better adopted, we need more than consensus. We need competition. And we can only have competition when we have competing processes for setting standards.

We can introduce competition in standards by reducing restrictions on the creation of derivative works.

Linux provides a model for this. There is a tightly controlled core of functionality (the kernel) which is freely available and used by many competing distributions. Each distribution bundles the kernel with additional functionality for their customers. Some distributions (such as Red Hat and Fedora) concentrate on server management, others on the workstation environment (SUSE, Mandrake), multi-media capabilities (Ubuntu) or ease of use (Linspire). Different distributions have different commercial models, serving the needs of different markets. The core functionality is protected, and there is enough flexibility for variants to meet specific customer needs.

A similar model would allow competition to mould IT management standards to the specific needs of multiple customers, while preserving the critical core.

Would this weaken standards? Every day, managers pick and choose different parts of standards to use in their organisation. Making this tailoring to specific needs part of the standards process will strengthen standards, not weaken them.

Strong, widely-adopted standards need to be free. Standards are too important to be monopolies.

Next: What is a system?


To subscribe to the newlsetter, simply send an email to
Privacy policy

Subscribe to RSS feed

Latest newsletter:
Magical metadata

We use the term "metadata-driven" to describe IT solutions in which functionality is defined in data. Taking this to the extreme can provide unparalleled levels of speed, simplicity and versatility.
Read full newsletter

System governance

System governance helps you implement high-quality systems, manage existing systems proactively, and improve failing systems.

Try it for free!

Find out more