Common Standards

The recent U.S. presidential election is the perfect argument for why we need common standards. The U.S. voting system is not really a system but a mix ‘n’ match of the archaic and the modern.

According to The New York Times, “Some people vote by computer touch-screen. Others use machines designed in 1892. Still others, like voters in Palm Beach County, Fla., use punch cards and 1960s’ tabulating machines that are no longer made. Some ballots are the size of bed sheets or run for pages.”

The U.S. voting “system” is crying out for an XML standard! However, therein lies the problem. Technology is merely an enabler when it comes to establishing standards. Organizations and individuals must first come together to discuss and agree on what the standard should be. Then there needs to be a comprehensive education program to ensure that everyone understands and buys into the process. Finally, proper controls and policing are needed to ensure that the standards are being adhered to.

The enemy of standards is small-mindedness. Organizations caught in an Industrial Age mindset believe that making their system different is a competitive advantage, but individuals don’t want to change the way they’ve been doing things.

We live in an increasingly networked economy. Networks operate best when there is the freest flow of information within the network. The long-term benefits of freeing up the flow far outweigh any short-term individual gains of blocking that flow.

Achieving common standards for the creation, organization, and publication of information is a critical challenge that faces the Information Society. The question is: Can we turn our billions of documents of content into well-organized libraries, or are we going to feed bulging hard-disk dumps that reek of poorly prepared, out-of-date, and irrelevant data?

Technology alone will not solve the problem. In fact, technology, without proper standards, is making the problem a lot worse, a lot faster. Technology is giving us bigger dump trucks and bigger dumps, thus encouraging more messy behavior.

The mess in Florida is no exception. The entire U.S. voting system is creaking and leaking. Up until an extremely close election it avoided the microscope of attention. How many other information systems are creaking and leaking? I would safely say that if the world’s information systems were tested in the same way cars are, then very few of them would be “on the road.”

How do we start solving the problem? The short-term solution is for organizations to make the implementation of information standards a key part of their strategy going forward. Organizations need to initiate or join industry groups seeking to establish common standards.

The long-term solution involves rethinking how we educate our children and staff. We need to encourage an ethos where sharing information is highly encouraged, where classifying your information properly is as important as writing well, and where writing well is seen as an essential skill of the information worker.

We need to promote information environmentalist thinking. People need to understand that when they send an unnecessary email, ignore or improperly adhere to a standard for the classification of their content, keep 20 versions of a document when they need only two, write 2,000 words when they need to write only 500, they are polluting the network.

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