Standards may stifle innovation in the workplace

It took the standardized accounting profession decades to find an acceptable way to deal with inflation. Meanwhile, the regulated medical profession continues to resist the use of alternative treatment methods, even though some researchers have demonstrated such techniques may be effective in certain cases. One of the charges brought against standards, no matter what industry they touch, is that they stifle innovation. That may be true, but the absence of standards can cause other problems.

Questions about standards and innovation are important to IT. When discussing the topic it is useful to begin by distinguishing between product and process standards. Product or technology standards describe an important operating characteristic — for example, the standard used for Internet Protocol (version 4 or 6). Once established, a product standard becomes a required feature of future products. Changes can happen, but it takes a long time to change an established product standard.

Market uncertainty will develop if a product standard has not been established. Innovative products could be based on a standard that will not survive and a commitment to such a product could prove costly.TextMarket uncertainty will develop if a product standard has not been established. Innovative products could be based on a standard that will not survive and a commitment to such a product could prove costly, which is why some manufacturers may think it is better to wait until there is one clear, established standard. Such a standard may make innovation more difficult, but it also reduces risk and increases the adoption rate. The speed at which we move toward IT product standards appears to be increasing, and people are recognizing that established product standards bring important market benefits.

On the flip side, process standards focus on the steps one must take to complete a task. Thousands of standards exist for processes such as IT procurement, development, operation and governance. Much like product standards, process standards bring with them both costs and benefits. To understand these standards, it may be best to first consider the three different categories into which they fall, all of them recognized by the international standards community.

The first category, the practice guide — an organized collection of best practices — is the least restrictive process standard. One example is the Project Management Institute Body of Knowledge’s collection of best project management practices.

The next step up is recommended practice. The more practice guides are used, the more they are honed and refined, which eventually advances them to recommended practices status. This kind of process standard evolution is evident in the development of the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL). The first generation of ITIL books were at the practice guide level — useful ideas in some circumstances — while current ITIL books are closer to recommended practice and considered useful in most circumstances.

The logical next step up would be for a recommended practice to become a required one, but such standards are absent from the IT arena. As with product standards, both costs and benefits are associated with IT process standards. One of the costs is the difficulty of furthering innovation and making improvements. In some cases, “good enough” may be too readily accepted but enterprises can change that by improving co-operation between teams, departments and organizations. Such improvements would give IT professionals the opportunity to focus more on delivering desired results.

IT professionals have a responsibility to understand product and process standards useful to their work. They are also responsible for seeking out innovations that will improve the IT department’s contribution. Striking the right balance between standards and innovations should be a hallmark of the effective IT worker.

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Fabian is a senior management and systems consultant in Toronto. He can be reached at [email protected].

Related links:

Global standards are key, Intel CEO tells Chinese execs

Time to play the standards game

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