OASIS Breaks the Traditional Standards Accreditation Barrier

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On Tuesday, OASIS made an extremely rare announcement for an information technology consortium: that it has successfully completed the process of becoming accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).   As a result, it is now able to submit its standards to ANSI for recognition as American National Standards (ANS). And also to directly submit its standards for adoption by ISO and IEC. This is a milestone that’s worthy of note, despite the fact that over 200 standards setting organizations (SSOs) have achieved a similar status in the past.

Why?  Because those 200 plus prior-accredited SSOs were all created as US-centric organizations, although some (such as ASTM and IEEE) later became global standards development powerhouses. In other words, virtually all of these organizations were formed under the traditional “two step” standards development structure under which national standards organizations created standards for implementation within national borders, only some of which were subsequently proposed for global adoption by one of the “Big Is” (ITU, in addition to ISO and IEC).

Not all standards were formed in this two step process, however. Some were developed by committees formed under the aegis of one of the Big Is, but hosted by a national SSO. But under the traditional regime, meetings were held face to face, and balloting was by snail mail. Hence, the development of new standards was (then) a leisurely, collegial affair measured in terms closer to a decade than a single year.
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That traditional route was bypassed by increasing numbers of impatient vendors in the IT sector, and later communications industry, as the pace of innovation increased.  Beginning in the late 1980s, they began to form a rapidly proliferating array of “alliances,” “SIGS,” “forums, “consortia” and other SSOs that came to be collectively referred to as consortia.  These new, more nimble SSOs sought to rapidly develop and promote standards globally from the beginning, rather than following the much slower, two step process. And they conducted their operations in a progressively more virtual fashion in pursuit of speed.

But there was one problem: consortia were (and continue to be) disproportionately created by US headquartered companies. As a result, in the beginning, in particular, they had an image problem. Many standards developers and users elsewhere in the world viewed them as not being truly “open” in the same sense as the manifestly global Big Is, with their nationally representative structure.

The result was that consortia sought to lessen the appearance of appearing to be too US centric by whatever means possible: establishing other offices (e.g., in Europe), by rotating the locations of their in person meetings around the globe – and by avoiding any affiliation with ANSI.

All of which brings us back to the concept of accreditation by ANSI. And, relatedly, what ANSI accreditation is all about to begin with? [But first, by way of timely disclosure, I should mention that I serve on the Board of Directors of ANSI, as well as on several ANSI committees.]

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Most succinctly stated, ANSI accreditation means confirmation that an SSO “is competent to carry out specific tasks (As defined in ISO/IEC Guide 2:1996).” Gaining this recognition involves vetting numerous processes, procedures, admissions criteria, and other aspects of the SSO to ensure, among other things, that all affected classes of stakeholders have an opportunity to have their voices heard before a given standard is adopted. Maintaining accredited status requires regular reporting and periodic confirmatory audits.

Receiving accreditation accomplishes two goals: first, it provides a third-party validation that the SSO in question meets a set of articulated goals that have been internationally agreed to be valuable and important.  And second, it qualifies the SSO to have its standards be considered by ISO/IEC for adoption, without having to resort to one of the less formal processes available to consortia (such as the Publicly Available Standard, or PAS process – for which OASIS qualified in 2005, in order to submit its OpenDocument Format for adoption as an ISO/IEC standard).

But if none of the hundreds of other ICT consortia that have been created have opted to seek ANSI accreditation in the past, one might well ask, why should OASIS, or any other consortium decide to do so now?

That’s a good question, and there are several answers that make sense. One is that ANSI accreditation is the only game in town. There isn’t anyone else to go to provide such a third party validation (although I have previously suggested that a new type of global accreditation could prove to be very valuable).

Another answer is that consortia have now become so global in their membership, and such a well recognized feature of the global landscape, that they’re less insecure about seeming US centric than they used to be.

And finally, there has been a modest move among consortia to try and raise their level of respect, both relative to traditional SSOs, as well as vis-à-vis other consortia.  Relatively recent examples of this trend are the W3C’s qualifying in November of 2010 to become an ISO/IEC PAS submitter (very much on its own terms), and the announcement by six SSOs last August that they would differentiate themselves from less committed SSOs by embracing a set of “OpenStand” Principles. As I concluded at the time, these principles were surprisingly similar to those espoused by traditional SSOs. I also noted that the joint announcement seemed to have been triggered, at least in part, by an attempt by the ITU to assert control over Internet standards, claiming that it would be a more appropriate steward for such important virtual properties than consortia.

It’s interesting to note in this context that while the standards of hundreds of SSOs are used in the certification of everything from sardines to health professionals to WiFi routers, consortia themselves do not seek to qualify themselves by the same process. One reason why they do not is that becoming certified is burdensome, and it’s rare that anyone takes on a burden without an anticipated benefit.

Historically, one incentive for undertaking voluntary certification has been to differentiate oneself, or one’s products, in a competitive environment. And that is what we are seeing today, whether it involves an SSO trying to get its standards approved for procurement by a European government, or having one of its standards approved for inclusion in a profile developed by the SmartGrid Interoperability Panel (now SGIP 2.0, Inc., a U.S. public-private initiative). In each case, the opportunities for credentialing and differentiation are few.

Whether or not other consortia will follow OASIS’s lead remains to be seen. But in approving OASIS, ANSI has opened the door a bit wider for more consortia to take the plunge.  Specifically, it has for many years been an open question whether an SSO with an IPR policy that requires (at least in some working groups) that essential patent claims be made available on a royalty free basis could meet ANSI’s accreditation rules that bear on IPR matters.

To its credit, ANSI had taken the time and effort to seriously think through that question, as well as what types of controls or other guarantees might be advisable to ensure that the rights of IP owners are properly respected. With the accreditation of OASIS, it’s now clear that such a policy, properly constructed, can pass muster.

For those that follow such matters, the accreditation is therefore not only a milestone for OASIS, but for ANSI, and the traditional standards development community in the U.S. as well.

For my part, I have long felt that the division between the traditional standards development infrastructure and the modern world of consortia has been both artificial and counterproductive.  Here’s hoping that the accreditation of OASIS by ANSI is the harbinger of more productive synergies to come between these historical strangers.

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