Do standards defeat innovation?

In both govenrmnent and industry there have been numerous rhetorical references thrown about regarding the importance of a vision of the future being built on ”standards based innovation”.  Sounds like a good slogan, until someone asked if this was an oxymoron.  If information technology is based on standards, is there any room for innovation?  Or to put it another way, if the government issues standards for IT, is the message to forget about new ways of doing things?  It is not a frivolous question.  There is a sense in which the procurement of an application product based on a standard turns the product into a commodity, defeating the potential for much, if any, innovation.  For example, the procurement of an electrical plug in accordance with UL standards doesn’t seem to leave much room for innovation, at least with respect to how to plug in a device.

Maybe not with respect to the problem being addressed by the standard, but the existence of such a standard opens up the possibility that innovation occurs at a higher level.  Once we had a standard for a plug, all kinds of appliances could be invented and would work anywhere.  When Congress established a standard for the width of railroad tracks, it led to the creation of a transcontinental railroad and thousands of innovations in the use of trains.  Even beyond the railroad, the very existence of this capability led to thousands of innovative applications and businesses that were able to address distant markets.  Think watermelon in winter.  Even in the information technology industry, the existence of basic standards such as TCP/IP turned out to be the key ingredient in the innovative structure of the internet. There was then no need for innovation at the protocol level so this standard could be used as a basis for unimaginable new products and services.

In fact, standards are the building blocks that enable a new level of innovation.  The kind of standards that we have been developing to focus on enabling innovation in information sharing will improve decision making across communities of interest beyond what could happen without the standards.  In this sense, then, standards are essential to innovation.  We have already seen the value of standards such as XML, graphical standards and others as key ingredients in innovative solutions for government and the private sector.  Several decades ago (in the eighties) there was an article in one of the popular magazines that boldly stated that there were 25,000 applications yet to be developed for computers.  This has to be one of the biggest underestimates in history yet at the time people marveled that anyone could be so bold as to make this wild a prediction. The development of and agreement on standards fueled this fire.

Standards generate opportunities for innovation that we cannot begin to imagine, because they address  component automation that does not have to be done thousands of times over, and with these standards will come innovative thinking and development of new products and solutions simply because our national development assets do not have to waste time on the standardized components and can instead imagine what might be done with new combinations and extensions of the technology.

If we take the glass half full attitude, and if we start to be clear that standards should enable innovation, then we can do a better job of deciding what standards should be created, and let this business reason drive the standards development efforts.  Some say we already have too many standards, and it is certainly true that we should not create standards for their own sake, but if we use this test and also ensure that full stakeholder representation in developing standards is the only useful road to follow, then  we will pave the way for meaningful innovation and consequently more responsive government.

The value of standards and their facilitation of innovation become most obvious when we approach information sharing across the boundaries of communities and disciplines.   The maximum utility of the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) is its elegance in cross-boundary information sharing by its ability to define terms and structure relationships that can be interpreted in multiple contexts and domains.  If the communities of justice, health, human services and schools can find common meaning in the data about offenders/patients when they are all involved, it will be because they learned to standardize a set of terms such as those embodied in NIEM which facilitate information sharing to make better decisions.   They will also have created standards for the protocols of exchanging information needed by multiple disciplines.

When agencies or companies avoid embracing standards on the grounds that they limit innovation or are too costly, they risk creating the kind of stove-pipe solution to a problem that we try mightily to avoid.   And when this happens, the inevitable consequence is that when the need to exchange information grows stronger, the cost of doing so increases far beyond what might have been possible if standards were adopted in the beginning.  The lesson about this can be taken from the good carpenter’s advice of “plan twice, cut once.”

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