The Risks of Standardizing Standardization

In late 2008, IBM published a new corporate policy, which set guidelines for the company’s behavior in different standards setting organizations. While initially well received, such an attempt to standardize the process of standardization may prove to have negative effects on innovation as no single consensus-view on openness currently exists.

The initiative strives to ultimately increase the level of openness throughout the whole process of standards development and was the result of a six-week discussion in 2008, in which 70 independent experts debated whether modern SSOs manage to keep up with reality (commercial, legal, social etc.). Interestingly, the discussion was not open.

As set out in the new policy, IBM will “begin or end participation in standards bodies based on the quality and openness of their processes, membership rules, and intellectual property policies”. Also, IBM will “help drive the creation of clear, simple and consistent intellectual property policies for standards organizations”.

Essentially, the initiative entails IBM leaving its position in SSOs which are not meeting the criteria for openness, set up by IBM. Further, the company will push for adoption of certain protocols, in the SSOs where IBM decides to not withdraw its membership, and will endeavor to persuade developing countries to only adopt standards which are compliant with these criteria.

Several positive reactions were prompted by the release. For example Andy Updegrove welcomed the initiative and called for more influential actors to follow; and Trond-Arne Undheim who in his blog suggested that perhaps this move by IBM would “fix the leaking pipes in the standards world”. They both cite the OOXML vs ODF battle as motivation for the initiative and that the IBM initiative is a move to avoid such issues in the future.

However, the idea of setting certain criteria by which SSOs are to be evaluated is problematic (see Per Andersen study and interview). SSOs differ from each other in many ways, which can manifest themselves in some organizations being more open in one part of the process than in others.

Forcing SSOs to comply with a set of criteria makes the process of standardization itself standardized, which has fundamental implication for institutional competition and innovation. Such a development would not benefit any stakeholder, especially not the end-users.

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