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Six errors regarding standardisation


Thomas Wollstein is a “standardiser” – and has been for about 30 years. Boring, you say? That is one of the many errors regarding standardisation.

This is why the employee of The Association of German Engineers (VDI) will be clearing up several misapprehensions about the world of standardisation.

By Thomas Wollstein

Let me note in advance: as a VDI employee, that the word "standardisation" does not trip off my tongue quite so easily, since for historical reasons the standards of the VDI used to be known as "guidelines". And then there is another set of rule-makers, who create documents with similarly high demands that are not called standards either. Consequently, I will refer below to technical regulations and generally accepted technological rules.

Error 1: standardisation is not fascinating

What exactly is standardisation? Some time ago, I asked people from my circle of acquaintances via social media and messengers to send me the first three words that occurred to them in relation to "standardisation". Key words such as "DIN", "state of the art", "harmonisation" and "classification" cropped up. But also ones like "lobbying", "relieving the government", "safe" and "restriction".

They are all correct: DIN is the biggest and best-known regulator and has a treaty that permits it alone to represent Germany in standardisation matters vis-à-vis the international community. Regulation has to be up-to-date and oriented to the state of the art; it unifies and classifies. The fact that lobbyists like to use it to secure their interests is inherent to the nature of the matter.

Regulation helps to relieve the government, because the legislature does not have to specify every nut and bolt in legal documents, but instead can resort to indeterminate legal terms such as "generally accepted technological rules", "average type and quality" or "common usage". This ensures that while one may not get a five-star solution, there will at least be something that meets basic, standard market requirements. Use of generally accepted technological rules is a very safe procedure, since the best minds have thought about how to get something "right". And restrictions are not always negative: an excessive variety of choices is filtered out, potential buyers, often not experts, are helped.

No one associated standardisation with a word that is very important to me: dialogue. I see technical regulation as a process of exchange. The groups interested in a particular matter get around a table and compare their expectations in the matter. Consequently, the matter is examined from every angle and the stakeholders arrive at a consensus.

Since not all stakeholders can have a seat at the table, but bundled interests are represented instead, the public is asked to provide feedback in the form of objections upon the publication of a draft. The draft of a technical regulation is deliberately not set in stone, but instead a contribution to a discussion with the committee that came up with it, which consults the remainder of the (technical) public and integrates it. As a result, everyone interested in the subject can also get involved.

This transparent process makes the drafting of regulations effective. The appraisal of an expert is an individual opinion and therefore potentially contestable, but a committee composed in a balanced manner by all interested groups regulates itself very effectively; the result has a quite different value. After the public has been brought in, a final technical regulation is published, which one can assume possesses the status of an accepted technological rule. It too will not exist forever either, since drafting regulations should smooth the way for technology - especially new technology – to become widely used.

When I began working as a technical regulation drafter thirty years ago, as a young and somewhat ‘nerdy’ scientist, I wanted a job that involved technology and where the human factor did not play a major role. You know the story: ivory tower, quiet study, etc. Drafting technical regulations seemed to offer all this. Seemed, past tense. Today I know better.

The experts who contribute their knowledge to drafting regulations are not only stakeholders for different reasons, but also people with their own lives and all of the problems this can involve. They bring this with them into the committee. As a result, leading a technical working committee to success becomes far more than just an organisational challenge.

All kinds of psychological problems of personal sensibilities, self-image and joint, not always unproblematic, previous histories of those involved, including the (legitimate) desire for recognition of individual or collective performance, which can appear to be put into question by the – possibly simply unfortunate – behaviour of individuals, can pose a threat to the mood and as a result to the productivity of a committee. For example, someone who advances what in principle might be a technically well-founded objection, which would receive a sympathetic hearing by most of the committee, can set off an avalanche of emotions almost leading to the technical question being forgotten if they use deprecatory vocabulary in formulating their point.

Personally, I work in the field of building and building technology. Almost everyone in our culture lives and works in buildings. Consequently, many people come into contact with "my" guidelines, most of them – and that’s a good thing – unconsciously. There are almost constant arguments in the building industry about how much something may cost, how it should have been executed, by when it should have been completed, etc.

However, when there is a problem, people look for the printed word that shows they were right. In this context, a VDI guideline is regarded as an "advance expert appraisal". And if it does not deal with the particular special case or – even worse – shows the other person was right, I get a furious call about how I could write any such thing. For the caller, I am personally responsible for the content of every guideline I have supervised. As a drafter of regulations (remember: a technical job), one sometimes feels like a scapegoat, sometimes like a spiritual counsellor.

My job is also fascinating, because it amounts to constant further education: I am continually together with outstanding experts who contribute their knowledge. I learnt things in the meetings of which I would never have dared to dream, many just interesting for the nerd in me, others amusing.

From my current point of view, I have to say that I had to expend far more energy looking after my committees and the network than I had to for the ordinary technical contents. It turned out to be fortunate that my idea of a dream job when I began was fundamentally wrong, because I believe I would have found the job I then wanted to be boring. In short, drafting regulations is fantastic!

Error 2: standards are regulation, i.e. their observance is mandatory

What do you think: can a private law organisation make regulations? Ones that apply to the general public? Of course not. Consequently, standards are not regulations either, but rather private law recommendations. Nevertheless, they are still not completely without obligation. Standards namely describe how something should be organised in the view of the groups concerned (or how to do something to ensure it works properly). The "groups concerned" are the people who constantly work with the matter in question. Experts. If they say, "This is how it’s done, we’ve tried it out, it works," laypeople can rely on not being misled."

§ 242 German Civil Code (BGB) says something about good faith and common usage. If someone owes me something, I should not be cheated, but instead the debt should be settled, as is fit and proper. For example, as a layperson, I can buy a complex technical product while not being able to evaluate the product at all due to lack of technical knowledge.

The term "common usage" (or "commercial usage" or "generally acknowledged technological rules") indicates that the legislature does not regulate all details here due to a lack of resources or technical knowledge, but instead relies there being something like "common sense". This is admittedly not prescribed, but if one fails to employ it, one can expect to be called to account.

This indicates the need for constant specialist further training: as a layperson, I must be able to rely (good faith) on a specialist commissioned by me being up-to-date. If I receive a service that does not correspond to the generally acknowledged technological rules, it is defective and I am not interested in whether my provider knew the new standards or not.

Error 3: DIN standards are binding, VDI guidelines only advisory

DIN 476 describes paper formats. Most people are familiar with them. There is hardly any guideline of The Association of German Engineers (VDI) with the same degree of familiarity. DIN also has a treaty with the Federal Republic of Germany, which assigns it the role of national standardisation institute. However, this does not mean that other organisations, such as the VDI, cannot draw up generally acknowledged technological rules.

All that counts for something to be regarded as a generally acknowledged technological rule is that it definitely represents the consensus of the groups concerned. This can simply happen "on its own". These generally acknowledged technological rules may then not even be written down – instead, every expert is simply familiar with them. However, you can also determine the state of the general technological rules regarding one subject in particular.

Procedures that indicate that the result of such work is a generally acknowledged technological rule are described in the rules for regulatory work, above all VDI 1000 and DIN 820. The most important requirement of these rules is that you should get as many interested groups involved as possible and also give the general public the option to lodge objections.

The VDI does exactly this and consequently all VDI guidelines – just like DIN standards – apply a priori as generally acknowledged technological rules and are just as binding (or non-binding).

Error 4: Standardisation hinders progress, because it freezes the current status in place

This is simply false. Yes, technical features are written down in the generally acknowledged technical rules, but not in stone. The generally acknowledged technical rules are living. That is to say – this is also a requirement of VDI 1000 – they must be regularly checked to see if they are up-to-date and if necessary updated or withdrawn.

This caught up with the DIN organisation a few years ago, because the German Supreme Court disqualified a standard as a generally acknowledged technical rule, because it was too old. Standards are often responsible for a technology becoming suitable for general use in the first place.

Let us consider the Blu-ray disc as an example: the technology had existed for quite some time, but it only became usable for the market once the standard had been consolidated. For only then was it possible to produce players where buyers could be sure that their expensively purchased devices would also have a wide range of media.

Error 5: DIN and VDI compete against each other

There is a heating and room ventilation technology standards committee at DIN and VDI technical committees for warmth/-heating technology and room ventilation technology. Let us imagine, there was one rule that said "Yes" and another that said "No" and both claimed to be "generally acknowledged". However, two contradictory statements cannot be simultaneously correct.

If a case came before a court, where the matter addressed by the rules had to be decided, the court would probably decide that neither of the two rules could be regarded as a generally acknowledged technical rule. This is why regulators, who create generally acknowledged technical rules, take delimitation into account. Every new project is entered in the standards databases to ensure the specialist community can find out whether a subject has already been dealt with in a technical rule.

Error 6: Standards are common property; you are free to copy them

Science and technical knowledge are common property. However, technical rules normally are not. Considerable effort is required to prepare technical knowledge in the form of generally acknowledged technical rules: specialists invest working time and for example travel costs, the staff of the regulator pay attention to observance of the regulatory process, organise the cooperation and process the knowledge contributed by the specialists. All of this has to be paid for.

Therefore, the specific processing of the knowledge is protected by the Copyright Act. At least one part of the financing is covered by the sale of the technical rules. Consequently, copies, for example, of VDI guidelines and DIN standards, are pirated copies.

In the case of topics dealing with trade and industry, those are asked to pay who have an interest in the standard, i.e. the companies that need them; in most of the DIN standards committees companies that send their employees to the committees have to pay a cost contribution to the DIN.

Here the regulator is walking a tightrope: for big industry the cost contribution is trivial, but not for small companies. If one does not take any precautions against this as a regulator, it is almost unavoidable that the small companies will be excluded from the standardisation work. Subjects in which industry has no interest – often those in the area of environmental protection, for example, air pollution control or noise reduction – are then if necessary funded by government.

The VDI’s guideline work is based on another model: part of the financing comes from sale of the guidelines. But the VDI e.V. was founded with the aim of transferring technology for the benefit of all in use. Therefore, to finance the goals set in its statutes, including the formulation of rules, the VDI can also use income from other sources, for example from the limited companies in the VDI Group. Working in a VDI guideline committee is cost-free. This lowers the threshold for co-operating in the VDI for small companies and the self-employed. 

Thomas Wollstein is a member of the VDI Society Building and Building Technology and in charge of operator responsibility, inter alia.

More information: The article was first published at blog.vdi.de

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