Three good questions

Paul McNeillis, head of professional services at the British Standards Institution looks at the strategic use of standards.

Customers have a way of asking good questions. Of course, a lot of them are difficult ones and the results of trying to answer them can be quite amusing and informative.

By sharing with you some of the more difficult questions I have been asked as head of professional services at BSI I hope to give you an insight into some useful approaches to getting the full business benefit from your standards.

BSI Professional Standards Services was established four years ago for two main reasons. Firstly, to create industry standards faster. Secondly, to get closer to the marketplace and its needs.

The service continues to grow quickly and serves sectors as diverse as IT and insurance, across disciplines as wide ranging as security management, business continuity and corporate social responsibility.

The successes have provided opportunities to get closer to our customers and have deeper conversations with them. It has also allowed for the inevitable awkward and direct questions to be asked.

Questions such as: How exactly does this standard relate to all of the others in your portfolio?

Good question. The sort of question that, if you're looking to give a slick instant answer, could leave you feeling somewhat uncomfortable. It has been said that a good question stays in the mind, whereas the answer - unless it's a really good one - is often quickly forgotten.

Let's summarize the essence of my initial answer to this question as some sophisticated variant on 'I'm not sure'. However the question stayed in my mind and we responded to the challenge.

Frameworks like standards invariably form part of larger complex business systems and as such relating them to each other rigorously requires a systems discipline. Without this you are left with a few cross references, some guidance notes, and a lot of 'tacit knowledge' gluing them together.

As the UK's national standards body we wanted to go beyond this approach, so we teamed up with Brass Bullet to develop a systems engineering discipline and applied it to standards and the way they relate to each other.

This discipline has since been applied to some of the thornier problems that occur when more than one complex system get in a room together!

We have incorporated these approaches into the analysis and re-design of business systems such as supply chain management and risk management in industries as diverse as fishing, the gas industry, and of course IT (for getting beyond gut feel on integrating management systems see BSI's recent series on IMS (Smith, 2001) and Jon Holt's book on Business Process Modelling from BCS).

One awkward question can lead to another and it wasn't long before we were confronted with another basic but searching question about standards. How precisely does this standard relate to my business strategy? The temptation to reach for a stock answer in this situation was strong though I opted for the far more sensible answer of 'good question'!

Getting beyond stock phrases and explaining in more detail that 'best practice' means searching for an answer that explains what a standard does.

Today's standards exist to help deal with the top priority business issues that hit your desk every day and can assist with the strategic direction of your business.

The current crop of standards coming out of BSI announce themselves confidently and directly in that way by addressing issues such as information security management (ISO/IEC 17799), risk and business continuity management (PAS 56), business contribution and governance of IT (BS 15000) and even sustainability management (BS 8900). They come out quickly and are ready to be applied to the problem at hand.

Another such issue is outsourcing. First came IT services, now with the announcement of the commoditization of processes the way is open for all services, even something as basic as procurement, to be outsourced.

BSI is currently developing the world's first business relationship management standard that will help improve the competitiveness of companies and the efficiency of managing relationships within the supply chain.

The standard will address the most challenging aspect of relationship management by providing a strategic framework to facilitate cooperation and integration.

At the strategic level this question accumulates with the first one to give the even more awkward formulation: 'okay but my business is different - I'm a premium brand not a cost cutter, which specific system of standards supports this business strategy?'

In fact how do you use standardization strategically in business? Answering these questions has generated some great results.

We have a series of case studies illustrating the strategic business benefits of utilizing standards and standardization and the National Standardization Strategic Framework (2005) has become a key knowledge hub for businesses in this respect.

BSI is also investing heavily in new business research to further develop the discipline of strategic standardization and the work we do with industry clients help us test these ideas on a daily basis, to keep them grounded in real business practice.

The DTI recently completed research demonstrating the value of standards to the UK economy estimated to be a significant £2.5 billion per annum.

This equates to 13 per cent of the growth in labour productivity in the post-war period so businesses now have the tangible fiscal evidence they have been searching for.

The final question

The final question is the kind of question people save till the end of the day. In case you are looking a little bit too confident or pleased with yourself.

Having engineered and optimized a portfolio of standards to manage their business risks, aligned them with their business strategy and taken a couple of minutes out for tea break, people are likely to ask you the big one.

The mother of all awkward questions lurking beneath all other questions about systems, frameworks and standards that rely ultimately on people for their implementation is: 'How do I get people to do this stuff?'

For a practical working answer to this question BSI provides guidance for example there a series of books on IT service management or information security including a gap analysis tool.

For the journey towards a long-term answer BSI is also making substantial investments in fundamental business research to develop innovative new services that address this deep and challenging question.

We have looked across a number of fields and started to develop some innovative approaches that work: A system of standards can look a bit like a map but the question is - is this the map that people have in their heads? If not they are liable to go off course.

So we have developed an existing discipline known as cognitive mapping which sets out how people see a particular subject - like, for example, a set of operating procedures. These cognitive maps are thought to reflect the mental models that people have of things.

There is also some good evidence to show that, in real situations, say a crisis or emergency, people will refer to this mental model as the basis for making real time decisions (It makes sense that they don't start looking through the procedures manual in this circumstance).

Since we can produce good maps of standards systems we can compare the two. Where the two don't match we can see how people can go off course. The mental model may even have some i'sights that should be incorporated back into the procedures - it's a learning cycle.

The challenge for our systems designers then becomes: 'how can we design standards systems that encourage people to develop the right kind of mental model?'

In this way you can have more confidence that the system you have in your procedures is the one people actually have in their heads. And that the maps in their heads are helping them make the right decisions in real life.

So there we are: three little questions and all we have to do to answer them is invest in systems engineering, create a new business discipline, and master the dark arts of human behaviour.

I live in the hope that the awkward questions will keep coming so life can remain as interesting and fulfilling as it has been to date.

If you have any questions for me on standards or you have an innovative partnership proposition please email me at: paul.mcneillis@bsi-global.com

in a nutshell

  • The results of trying to answer difficult questions can be informative.
  • BSI has developed a systems engineering discipline and applied it to standards and the way they relate to each other.
  • Today's standards exist to help deal with the top priority business issues that hit your desk every day.
  • The value of standards to the UK economy is estimated to be £2.5 billion per annum.
  • The challenge for our systems designers is: how can we design standards systems that encourage people to develop the right kind of mental model?

further reading

National Strategic Standardization Framework. 2005.

'The Coming Commoditization of Processes' T Davenport, Harvard Business Review 101-108.

A Manager's Guide to Service Management. J Dugmore and S Lacy, British Standards Institution.

Mapping Strategic Thought, A Huff, John Wiley and Sons.

IMS: The Framework, D Smith, British Standards Institution.

Naturalistic Decision Making, C Zsambok, G Klein, Eds, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc.

This article first appeared in November 2005 ITNOW.