Setting the Standard

Sunday, May 1, 2011 - 08:25

Colin Blair oversees an organisation of experts in standardisation, providing a vital link in Australia's socio-economic development. By Jason Day

Ever thought of a world without recognised standards? Unless you are literally referencing Australian Standards, Handbooks or Codes, it's quite possible that you rarely give them much thought. That's even if there's plenty of relatively informal benchmarking or ratings systems in everyday life: a four-star hotel or five? Will we see that two-and‑a-half-star film or not?

However, it only takes a few examples of where they come into play to reinforce their prevalence.

The former president of the International Organization for Standardization, Håkan Murby, wrote a few years back, "A world without standards would soon grind to a halt. Transport and trade would seize up. The internet would simply not function. Hundreds of thousands of systems dependent on information and communication technologies would falter or fail."

Standards ensure that the new printer you bought online works with your PC; that your company's risk-management strategy can be referenced to a benchmark; that child restraints perform consistently; and that the deliverers and receivers of products, services and procedures in fields as diverse as health, security and building and construction have a common basis for understanding.

Benefits of standards

While it's not hard to imagine a building structure failing because concrete wasn't mixed to a particular hardness standard, it takes a little more thought to appreciate the link between standards and the benefits to your business or industry, and the Australian economy as a whole.

Standards Australia (SA) is recognised by the Federal Government as the peak non-government standards body. Previously a design engineer in the private sector, SA's Chief Executive Officer, Colin Blair started working for it in 1987, in the role of a project manager in the building and construction standards area.

With about 7000 standards in Australia, SA defines them as "published documents setting out specifications and procedures designed to ensure projects, services and systems are safe and reliable, and consistently perform the way they were intended to."

"All developed and nearly all developing countries have a national standards body," says Blair. "When you start looking at what standards are about, it's what they bring to the community in terms of insuring orderly commerce and helping to build a safe and sustainable environment; they're a fundamental building block.

"They're about reducing transaction costs; ensuring purchase and supplier are talking the same language; ensuring compatibility of parts; and being integral to mass-producing something to realise economies of scale."

SA's objectives are to excel in the provision of contemporary internationally aligned standards that enhance trade and international competitiveness, enhance Australia's economic efficiency, and contribute to the community's demand for safety and sustainability. "When people think about standardisation they should be thinking about [the standards] in these roles," says Blair.

Over the course of his role of pursuing regulatory efficiencies for industry, Blair has come to see standards as occupying a central location along a regulatory continuum: "At one end, we have what we might call 'black-letter law', where an issue has occurred in the community and the government decides to legislate new law. The other end is where industry self-regulates. Standards sit in the middle, where there may be a need for standardisation to assist an industry or objective."

Leading on standards

Blair describes his main leadership role as working to set the organisation's strategic direction and oversee the daily operations. A significant component of his time is actually spent involved in interacting and communicating with stakeholders, technical experts, and with regional and international standards organisations.

"The fundamental part of my role is to be out there working with these groups to ensure that we're getting the right results [and that] we're not just an inward-looking, self-contained organisation," he says.

A standard is developed to an internationally recognised process using a transparent committee format that seeks and agrees on consensus using input from the key stakeholders concerned.

Blair describes the main challenges he faces are ascertaining the need for standardisation "over the horizon" and then ensuring that standards are part of the solution at the planning stage rather than considered later on in the process when everything's already underway.

"If there are new things happening, standards are going to be a fundamental part of what it's about," he says.

"An example of this currently is work we're doing on electric vehicles. Although we're only at the embryonic stage, the committee realises that standards are going to have to play a big part because we've got to put plugs in sockets, charge batteries and ensure batteries work.

"Another challenge is using people's time efficiently. For the committees themselves, made up of some 8000 people, a real priority is to ensure that the processes and infrastructure in place utilise our committee members' time efficiently," says Blair. "We must also continue to locate and engage with the next generation of contributors. Aligning available resources with the demands for standardisation is not easy."

Top project management

It's not a good look for an organisation producing standards to not hold itself to the highest standards in terms of project management and delivery. Clearly, good IT is fundamental.

"These days, people don't necessarily want to come to a common point and have a meeting, they ideally want to sit at their desk.

"As such, good IT systems, project management methods and processes are fundamental. As such, our workflow processes are electronic; we use web-based or videoconference technologies for meetings."

Blair says that, perhaps given his development through the organisation, he has a very hands-on approach to leadership.

"I find that important. As I must exercise ongoing consultation and communication with stakeholders, I see it as a fundamental part of my leadership style.

"I also like to have a good understanding of the standards development process and how it's working and developing," he says.

"However, I also realise that we have an excellent team that needs support and respect for their work in achieving outcomes while managing multiple stakeholders. That's quite a difficult task. So part of my leadership is to ensure that this outcome is recognised and respected."

Ultimately, according to Blair, SA's primary focus is internationally aligned Australian standards and related services for the benefit of Australia.

"My vision is that when stakeholders look at Standards Australia, they see an efficient, smart organisation that they want to work with in assisting the national interests.

"When I say national interest, it means enhancing Australia's economic efficiency, trade and international competitiveness, as well as contributing to a safe and sustainable environment.

"Personally, I view Australian standards as a national asset. I'd like leaders all over Australia to recognise and embrace their economic value."

Standards and the law

Standards Australia is not part of the government and does not make laws or regulations. Though Australian standards are not legally binding, many, because of their rigour, are called up into legislation by government and become mandatory. Standards are also often incorporated into legal contracts.

The standards development process:

  • Request for a new standards project
  • Evaluation on national needs and benefits
  • Approval of new standards project
  • Committee formed
  • Committee develops draft
  • Public comment on draft
  • Consideration of comments
  • Draft for postal ballot
  • Standard published and distributed.

Source: Imagine a world without standards, a Standards Australia document.