Engaging in standards development, lowering entry barriers

I was hoping to live blog the the CETIS Future of Interoperability Standards (FIS) event last Friday, however a combination of the mainly group discussion focus of the day and more importantly lack of stable internet access thwarted that plan. So I’m now going to try and come to a more considered view of the day.

The second in a series, the focus of this event was on “technical approaches to creating standards: how should we model and document standards.” As with the initial event held in January this year, position papers were sought prior to the meeting. In total 12 were received covering most interested parties from developers to commercial companies.

In the morning we split into groups to discuss a number of common areas identified from the position papers. I was in the (small and select) group interested in requirements gathering. Most of the position papers did reflect that there there are recognised issues in setting the scale/scope of any specification/standard. And I think that most of the 30 or so people in the room recognised the issues around general engagement in the development process – which starts with requirements gathering.

One of the key issues (particularly in relation to educational technology standards, though I’m sure it is the same in other domains) is the tension between market forces and user needs. There is always a tension between the stability of a standard and its implementation/adoption. Often vendors don’t want to try anything new until it is stable, which can of course substantially delay the release and adoption of a specification/standard within a sector. If the big boys aren’t playing then often no-one else will. So, are (should) standards be about developing markets or about driving innovation? Is it possible to mitigate the risks involved in developing something new in unstable environments?

Some of the potential solutions we discussed were around a changing mindset to allow standards be more disposal, to have shorter release little and often approaches with more integrated feedback. We also discussed the possibility of some modelling some of the dependencies the standards processes and vendor development cycles – would that allow us some greater insight into more effective alignment?

However engagement with the standards development process is challenging. One of the suggestions that came from the “implementability” group that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit was that maybe some training around standards engagement is needed.
From personal experience I know going to spec development meetings can be initially quite intimidating. Getting your head around the language, the “rules” (written and unwritten), the personalities, the politics, all takes time. All the cliches around clubs/cliques are present. So maybe if people were better informed, some of the basics were covered in some kind of way, more people would be inclined to get involved and bring newer ideas with them.

I wouldn’t expect an influx of interest, this is always going to be a niche area attracting a certain type of geek 😉 Traditionally at CETIS it’s our staff who go to various standards/spec meetings then report back and forth between our communities and various bodies. But maybe there is something that we could help to develop some more ways to lower the barriers to effective engagement with standards bodies for anyone who was interested in being involved.

The FIS series are a set in the right direction to surface a range of issues around the standards development space, however the people in the room on Friday were all pretty experienced in the standards game – so maybe we need to target the layer below (if that exists). We at CETIS obviously have links to the JISC community, but this is something that should extend beyond that (imho). If you have any thoughts I’d really like to hear them.

The full set of position papers, notes from each of the discussion sessions from the meeting are available from the CETIS website.