When I tell someone I have been on an ISO committee for over a decade, it spikes their interest.

They get the ‘international’ and ‘organisation’ but can only guess at the ‘S’: swimming, skiing, soccer, shooting, even snooker!

The word ‘standards’ causes eyes to glaze over and shoulders slump.

If I do get a response it is usually:

“Why do we need standards?”

I struggled for a long time to successfully answer this question.

Long dissertations on the needs for standards brought on yawns and a face that said:

“God. When is he going to stop?!”

I eventually found an answer that seems to work. It goes like this.

“Go into your kitchen. Look at all the electrical appliances. Every unit with a plug will fit into any wall socket in the kitchen. We don’t have to have a wall socket for Westinghouse appliances and another for LG appliances. They are all standard.”

“Now go to that drawer you hate to open. The one with 25 plastic containers and 35 lids. Maybe you can get 15 matches out of all those bits of plastic. Do you get why we need standards?”

Aside from a standard for plastic containers, we need a whole range of international standards for business and manufacturing to operate in an increasingly multinational world.

For example, say you were a builder and bought a product from overseas which was rated as “Grade 1”.

You might assume that it was the same quality as “Grade 1” in Australia.

Maybe it is rated as “Grade 1” under a North Korean standard. Who knows?

International standards are important in every industry to bring a consistent and common understanding across countries and organisations.

For those who have never been involved in an ISO standard, it is important to have some understanding of the process.

ISO committees sit over a period of up to three years to draft a standard, then put it out to review where written amendments are submitted.

The document is refined and then goes through another review cycle.

The committees I have worked on have perhaps 20 members working face-to-face for a week at a time. They may meet twice a year.

The number of draft reviews can be anything from two to four.

The reviews take place across dozens of country-based standards organisations and each point commented on is considered in the face-to-face meetings.

Over a week, the in-person meetings I have attended considered anywhere from 300 to 800 comments.

Some cover the same point, but often there are different recommendations on the same point.

ISO works through consensus. The group must reach a mutually acceptable resolution of each point.

A common phrase is “Can you live with that?”.

We might not all agree, but through the group convener, we strive to find an acceptable solution.

Since all discussions are held in English, there is an unavoidable bias towards English speakers.

Often there may be several representatives from the USA but only one, or even none, from other English-speaking countries such as Australia, UK, South Africa and Canada.

A lively discussion can be daunting for some people who have English as a second language.

If we are to get standards that are not overly influenced by the USA, it is important that we have representatives from other English-speaking nations, and that those participants encourage input from non-English speaking countries.

The next big question is why should an organisation such as ACS be involved in developing international standards?

Standards Australia which is the peak standards body in Australia, asks organisations such as industry bodies and academic institutions if they want to sit on a mirror committee.

A mirror committee is a body in Australia that mirrors a similar ISO group.

For example, I am the ACS representative on Australian Standards body MB-012 which covers project, programme and portfolio management.

The ISO group we mirror is TC258 which has developed standards for Project Management, Programme Management, Governance of Projects Programmes and Portfolios, Earned Value, Work Breakdown Structure, and several others.

I believe ACS has three things to offer an ISO committee:

· Personal expertise. Some of the members of ACS are world experts in their area. They have a distinguished career in the field and their input is invaluable to the development of an international standard.

In other cases, they have held a breadth of roles during their career, experiences that bring a different perspective to the very narrow focus of a standard. For example, if you were developing an international standard for C++, would you want a room full of people who had worked their whole life in C++ programming, or a few with experience in multiple languages?

· An Australian perspective. We do some things really, really, well in Australia. In fact, we are sometimes ahead of the world. It is these experiences that ACS needs to push onto the international stage. I have been surprised at how much I took for granted in Australia which was different in other countries. Sometimes we do it better, and sometimes I could learn from other countries, and bring the lesson back to Australia.

Another issue is terminology. What we call something in Australia is not necessarily what it is called overseas. Where there are differences, they need to be pointed out.

· An IT perspective. This may not be so critical on more IT-centric standards, but in the project area, I have been one of two IT representatives on an ISO committee. We had people from construction, infrastructure, aerospace and manufacturing talking about project-related issues, but nobody talking about how it worked in IT. Had I not been there, we would have completely ignored the specific issues that relate to IT.

An example was the consideration of an IT project outsourcing development to other countries. This is much more relevant in IT than, for example, in infrastructure. Bringing those issues to the table resulted in several inclusions in the final standard relating to risks, cultural differences and governance.

In summary, standards are a common language.

They allow a company in Australia to talk with a company in India, or Sweden or Mexico on the same level.

Australia, and particularly ACS has a choice.

We can influence those standards before they are created, or struggle to comply after they are issued.

Our input is important and I hope ACS will continue to support our voluntary representatives to put forward the ACS view on the world stage.

Getting involved

In Australia, there are numerous ways to get involved in standards development – whether it is within an industry-based group (eg, the Ai Group, Australian Information Industry Association, or the IMS Global Learning Consortium) or more formally through ACS via the many committees established within Standards Australia.

With the emergence of the 4th industrial revolution and the ubiquitous innovation of digital technologies, it makes a lot of sense for ACS representatives to participate in the standardisation of ICT.

If you are interested, please check the vacancies via our representative governance pages on acs.org.au

· ACS Standards Australia representative members and vacancies

· ACS International Federation for Information Processing representative members and vacancies

Neville is the ACS representative to Standards Australia Committee MB-012 Project, Programme and Portfolio Management. Now retired after a career spanning engineering, marketing, strategic planning, project management, consulting and software development, Neville spent 20 years in the IT sector in roles including analyst, programmer, CIO, project management and consulting.