Patrick Lamb’s article on the certification wars continues to attract some comments and reminded me of a side panel that went on at the time relating to standards, ISO etc. etc. Basically there were three attempts that I know of none of which have actually set a standard, two of which were useful.

In the UK the BSI set up a committee which produced a worthy document. A consultancy firm had originally sponsored it and got their name and logo on the front cover (one can imagine the motivation) but there was some diversity in the committee formed. I was one of the participants and spent most of my time editing the document to add in statements along the lines of this is the majority view, however other approaches would contradict this and argue that ….. plus variations on the same theme. As a result of that and other similar interventions from other committee members KM: A guide to good practice remains a useful if expensive resource. The excellent work put in by the two consultants allocated time was critical as it did not depend simply on voluteers. The document is rich, diverse and one which avoids any attempt at being a standard in the sense of this is the way that you should do things.

Now after this was complete things went down hill a bit and instead of picking up on the document and fleshing out aspects the available money was used for specific projects that appealed to people. The majority of the tenders were won by members of the committee. Some of these were good, but not related much to the primary document others were blatant attempts to build sales collateral for a sector. Throughout the process there was little or no quality control (other than checking process stages) from BSI and all our conversations with them related to their financial targets for selling documents.

The second useful attempt was from Standards Australian who produced not just one document but also a revision KM: Knowledge Management – a guide. This was produced by volunteers from accross Australia mostly practitioners and had more diversity than the BSI approach but did end up with a document which reflects the consensus basis of its creation. Again it is very expensive and the reflects the increasing commercialisation of government which will I think, if it has not already, damage the brand.

The worst of all was a US attempt where it seems more or less anyone can register to produce an ISO standard. This was done by one of the players in the certification wars that Patrick summarises as a part of the game. The said organisation then gave the impression that they had been appointed by the US Government to create standards for KM and got a lot of funded trips to Asia on the basis of a claim which had some basis in fact, if you were not aware of the context. Other players then came out with formal declarations against standards (because I think they had not thought of the ploy) and the debate spilled over into ACT KM. Raymond of SPRING, the BSI equivalent in Singapore, (a truly lovely man who was fascinated by knowledge management and orchids and was taken from us by cancer not so long ago) used to bring the protagonists together from time to time but wisely avoided going down that route.

All of this leads me to some questions”

Have standards just become a commercial venture?

If so (and I think the answer is yes) then how can they be objective?

Can you create standards for a developing field before it stabilises?

How can you take a standards model devised for goods (fire safety equipment) and apply it to services (knowledge management?

and finally, just like the Wikipedia debate: what is truth?

I think it was best summed up for me by a very pragmatic Dane, at that time Logistics Director of Lego. I had just finished negotiating a contract to supply them with forecasting and inventory management software, a product called MURCO which I built from an academic idea with one of the best teams I have ever worked with in my life (miss you all guys) and which still survives in a different form. The deal was in the balance and I trotted out the party line about our company being ISO9001 certified. We were on a boat at the time – on the Lego lake at Legoland in Billund surrounded by Lego crocodiles so this is all slightly surreal. He looked at me and said “So, you have written down what you will do when you fail to give me service, so what? What I want to know is will I get service, not will you follow a process” I wish he had been there to advise the help line of BT, the saga of which continues by the way. Watch this space.

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