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The Great British Plug and Industry Standards

by Andrew White  |  February 12, 2020  |  Comments Off on The Great British Plug and Industry Standards

I was somewhat intrigued to read an article in this week’s Economist titled, ‘The Parable of the Plug’. The article looks at the success of the British electric plug via a vis the alternatives. The design is robust; it has several features that protect the user, or toddler abuser, more so than flimsy two-pronged alternatives. But how did such a product become so successful?  The  argument is that market demand and regulation is required for such products to reign. The example cited is the EU- the latest pantheon of effective standards delivery.

The story is that the EU market is so large that it creates such an incentive for such products to win – it just works. Being a European, now living in the US for 20 years, I can tell you that the homogeneous US market is anything but a standards haven. Yes, federally there is the impression of standards galore. But at State level there is yet another layer of regulation that often leads to more complexity.  Almost every standard you can shake a stick at has a variant; and they change over time thus undermining the idea that a standard is a standard. Be it plumbing, electrical, mechanical, nail varnishing, hair dressing, car washing, my local city, state, and federal masters, are all at variance over the rules, who sets them, and when they change.

So, is the EU the pantheon the Economist suggests? I am not so sure. From a work perspective I have been dumbfounded at the simplicity of standards and the down-right tactical benefit they are supposed realize. They rarely seem to yield strategic benefit the proponents would argue. For users, who have to transform their ‘as is’ state to a new standards-based state, there is just cost.  There are certain standards that have worked well but the impact is less clearly quantified.  There are many technical standards that help technical things connect and even interoperate.  But when it comes to the content being integrated, standards are less useful.  To really exploit the use of those semantic standards, a firm would have to change its entire internal data model.  Its like willingly taking out a self-imposed frontal lobotomy.  And maybe every few years.

Yes, I have seen some small benefits through the use of standards to help with B2B sharing of data, in the area of consolidated classified procurement data to help with supplier negotiation. But overall the costs have exceeded the value promised. Perhaps it’s to do with when standards emerge…. and who promotes them.  Should we “follow the money”?

When a new market or mode of operation emerges, there is complexity. All variants are unique, and the market has not yet spoken or presented a monopolistic leader. Then fast followers, perhaps the second and third placed leader, gang together to promote a standard in order to prevent the leader from shutting themselves out of the market.  Thus, the dominant player has to join and in so doing, the standard is diminished. Its development will be drowned in bureaucracy. The organization in the top slot will wrap up the other stakeholders in red tape nothing happens; or worse something emerges that is referred to as a standard that is next to useless. I have seen this, firsthand. Just look at the history of EDI.

Health IT and the need for interoperability, needed and even regulated in order to make the US healthcare industry more effective, remains a huge challenge.  There has been too much focus to date on technology challenges (which are few) and not enough on behavior and goal alignment challenges (which are many).  But I am somewhat enthused when I saw this recent headline: HIT Think How to improve patient outcomes with accurate identity matching.  This has some promise, if the use of the consistent ID is tied to patient outcome and less about forcing technology methods for sharing the data.

So maybe the Economist article is correct – market forces and some gentle nudges from knowing public sector mandarins are needed….  I wonder…



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Category: industry-standards  

Andrew White
Research VP
8 years at Gartner
22 years IT industry

Andrew White is a Distinguished Analyst and VP. His roles include Chief of Research and Content Lead for Data and Analytics. His main research focus is data and analytics strategy, platforms, and governance. Read Full Bio

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