Enterprises Seek Role in Standards

As standards-and standards organizations-proliferate, IT managers such as Robert Kozak say they must pick and choose carefully where and how much they will participate.

As standards—and standards organizations—proliferate, IT managers such as Robert Kozak say they must pick and choose carefully where and how much they will participate. Kozak, director of Internet development at W.W. Grainger Inc., and his colleagues decided to focus most of their companys standards attention on the World Wide Web Consortium because that groups open, inclusive procedures gave Grainger its best chance to influence future technologies.

"We looked at where we could really maximize our impact," said Kozak, in Lake Forest, Ill. "Other organizations are just as important, but its difficult to proportion the amount of standards work we can do. We need to ensure we can contribute in a way that provides the greatest impact for our customers, for Grainger and for the organizations were involved with."

IT managers from companies such as Grainger and General Motors Corp. say participating in standards bodies gives them a competitive advantage by ensuring that they have a say in how technology such as XML will work and will be implemented in future products they are likely to purchase. Participating also gives enterprise IT a chance to play a role in the struggle to develop technologies that are not only interoperable but also lower the cost of doing business.

Choosing which standards bodies to participate in, however, can be as complex as the technologies being worked on. IT managers making that choice should, first, look at their long-term IT goals and decide which technologies—and therefore which groups—will be most important to them, experts say. IT managers should also evaluate the quality of work being produced by each group.

In addition, experts say, IT managers should be leery of standards-focused groups that are vendor-dominated (see interview). The Web Services Interoperability Organization, for example, was organized by IBM, Microsoft Corp. and VeriSign Inc., all of which also authored its initial specifications.

Certainly, IT managers considering participating in standards bodies must clearly define their needs and goals. This includes not only deciding which standards they are most interested in working on but also whether the enterprise has qualified people with enough experience to contribute meaningfully to a given standard.

IT managers should also look at the work being produced by an organization for quality and acceptance by other standards organizations. Interoperability, openness, implementation and testing are all issues the standards body should be focused on, said John Parkinson, chief technology officer at Cap Gemini Ernst and Young U.S. LLC, in Chicago.

At Grainger, one of the largest distributors of facilities maintenance products in the United States, the decision to join the W3C was based not only on the organizations openness and its insistence on royalty-free standards but also on the success of standards such as XML and HTTP, said Carl Turza, vice president of e-Business at Grainger. Vendor-driven standards bodies were not considered.

"We chose the W3C for its track record and because of its work to improve the Web for everyone, not just for proprietary or individual groups," Turza said. "The W3C has also been very active in setting standards for technology that are fundamental to Graingers business, including HTML, HTTP and XML."

Participation, however, means real commitment from enterprise IT.

Grainger, for example, has five developers and architects participating in the W3Cs working groups for specifications including XML, Secure Sockets Layer and Platform for Privacy Preferences Project. Each employee spends about 10 to 20 percent of his or her time on W3C activities.

"Were committed because our participation has allowed us to add utility and to introduce value to our customers," said Daniel Austin, a technical architect at Grainger who participates in the W3Cs Web Services Architecture Working Group and has been involved in the HTML Working Group since 1996.

For example, said Turza, Grainger is using its inside knowledge of Web services and XML technologies to refine its e-procurement methodologies. And that, said Turza, will benefit Grainger and partners such as Dell Computer Corp. and Staples Inc.

Even after joining a standards body, organizations will need to determine which working groups theyll dedicate their time to. At GM, four people work full-time deciding what standards are important to the company and what kind of participation in standards groups is appropriate. These employees are supported part-time by five staff members as well as by employees from Electronic Data Systems Corp., GMs outsourcer.

GM actively participates in the Sustainable Software Consortium at Carnegie Mellon University and in various industry-specific organizations working on standards such as electronic business XML. The reason? CTO for IS and Services Tony Scott said he wants to be sure that GM can play an active role in the work being done and can make major contributions to a standard.

"When we participate in standards work, it means an organization is doing work that touches and concerns GM," Scott said. "It means that the work directly affects our business and is certainly worth our time and attention."

Senior Writer Anne Chen can be reached at