A forum to discuss ideas, approaches, standards, and architecture to establish and support open interoperability among healthcare IT systems.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Participating in Standards: Burden or Benefit?

Through the course of day-to-day interactions with many organizations, there appear to be three philosophies regarding industry standards. The first philosophy is ambivalence -- organizations that do their own thing and ignore standard. The second philosophy involves using industry standards where there is a business reason to do so, but the standards-making is left to others. The last philosophy involves active engagement in the standards community. This is clearly the hardest path. The open question, then, is whether it is worthwhile?

I believe it is, and for several reasons. Ignoring standards only serves to isolate you or your organization from a bigger community. True, using standards is not without pain. Standards that are open by definition cannot be controlled, so there are no guarantees that they will do precisely what you want or need. That said, the strength in numbers in the marketplace has influence, and eventually if all of your competitors support a standard you'll be compelled to do so to, or to risk obscelence. Just look at the status of proprietary desktop/laptop PC accessory interfaces and you'll see what I mean. How many plug-in devices don't support USB or Firewire, right?

The laissez-faire approach to standards has merit. Standards participation takes investment, and it is not difficult to put together a compelling case to let other companies/organizations make those investments, and for your own to simply harvest the reward. In some circumstances, this can be a sage approach. If the standard is in an area where you have limited existing investment, and the results are not core to your business, for instance. Suppose your product is really about user interface enhancement. You may not care what type of data you are presenting, so whatever data standards emerge from the marketplace would be fine. Laissez-faire works.

Very often, however, companies elect to defer Standards participation even in areas core to their business. Instead of engaging, they wait to see what Standards emerge, and then either adopt them or gripe that they don't meet their needs. Why participate? Participation is expensive. Participation takes time. Perhaps worst, you can participate and still not "get your way" in the result. It can be hard to make a business case to engage. Let's explore why you should...

There are several benefits to Standards participation that make the investment worth it.

1) Earliest marketplace insight. Vendors engage do so to influence the market. Instead of waiting to see what happens, you can influence and shape a standard to be friendly to your products or offerings. While an open standards body will prohibit any one vendor or interest from pushing things into a proprietary solution, there is often a fallback "70%" alternative that is open and still friendly to your organization's interests.

2) Community learning. In my experience, the standards community is rich with A-players that bring extensive expertise and insight. Moreover, within this community there is a shared focus on problem solving very difficult challenges, and the opportunity to interact with resources that you would never be able to reach otherwise. The interpersonal networking is unbelievable, and the credibility established once you're "in the club" allows you future access to bounce ideas and share thoughts with people that have been doing deep thinking about topics such as your biggest challenges. Besides, how can you quantify a return-on-investment that results from NOT doing something that doesn't work based upon a discussion about how others tried it and failed?

3) Soft-sell value of participating. Participation in standards is a commitment above and beyond implementing them. It demonstrates community responsibility, and that has tangible business value. Working to solve the tough challenges facing industry helps corporate image and changes the nature of dialogue with customers. This doesn't mean just going to meetings--it means making something happen.

Organizations elect to participate in standards for many different reasons, but ultimately it is driven because they see a business rationale for doing so. If you're not participating, you might want to take a moment to see how many of your competitors are, and ask yourself why...


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