You can’t go far these days without hearing someone bemoaning the ‘decline in standards’. But, in business, standards are far from the preserve of fusty Edwardian types attempting to impose their will on other people or fill a few column inches. In fact, as a tool, they’re perhaps one of the best friends an SME can have. Not only can they offer the best method for carrying out tasks and producing materials and products but they also act as an enabler for innovation, offering a springboard to new ways of doing things.
The first thing to note is what a standard isn’t. “An SME very commonly will think that standards are something to do with regulation, something that it has to do,” explains Dr Scott Steedman, director of standards at formal standards body the British Standards Institution (BSI). He uses an analogy of a speed limit sign; a speed limit is a legally binding requirement that tells you the maximum legal speed you can travel on a stretch of road. But there is plenty of skill in driving a car that isn’t bound up by a piece of legislation. He continues: “SMEs should move away from the prejudice that a standard is something to do with a regulation and realise that it’s actually a peer-reviewed best practice opportunity, which they can just pick up and use.”
Put simply, a standard is an industry-agreed ‘best method’ of carrying out a specific task or manufacturing a given product. If a service or product is produced to a specific standard, it means that a consumer is able to rely on what is being offered because they know the originator has been following certain pre-defined practices. And there are examples in almost every sector. Simon Bartley, president of World Skills International – a not-for-profit membership association open to those promoting vocational education – began his career as a civil engineer and later ran his family’s building services business.
Because of the cost and danger posed if it went wrong, the quality of cabling installed in buildings was always of a significant concern, so being able to count on a certain standard was invaluable. “I would want to ensure that my buying department was buying cable that was to the relevant British standard,” he recalls. “Likewise, if I wanted to use a subcontractor to do some cabling I would insist that they used cable of the relevant British standard.”
When many enterprises are going to be relying on a common resource or service, it becomes essential to know that an element that is outsourced to another firm is delivered with the same quality. It can also help to communicate expected practices to new market entrants, preventing them from having to reinvent the wheel. “It paints a picture of the world an SME operates in and gives them some kind of road map with which they can navigate,” says David Williams, director of the EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Regenerative Medicine at Loughborough University. “They ought to not have to discover that road map by themselves.”
While standards are an important part of business for any enterprise, when it comes to SMEs they’re indispensable. Bartley is no stranger to the requirements of smaller companies, having spent a number of years on the CBI’s SMEs council as well as spending two as its chairperson. He comments: “I think it’s critical that an SME can be sure that what they are proposing, and the work they are undertaking, is done to a standard understood and recognised by their clients.”
To really make sense of standards and the value they hold, it’s important to understand how they come into being. We’re so used to discourse that suggests standards are a case of monolithic institutions like the European Union foisting straightened bananas upon us, but in fact nothing could be further from the truth – even the BSI plays only a minute part in drafting standards.
“We don’t write standards; the industry writes its own standards,” says Steedman. “As the industry committees – and we have 1,200 committees – write the standards that they want, our job is to facilitate that process and make sure that fair’s fair, that everything happens in an open way and that the right people are in the room.”
Perhaps the most powerful element of standards, however, is how they help enterprises to more rapidly innovate and develop newer solutions. “The internet is an instance of a commercial-driven standard,” comments Williams. Huge technological steps forward have required, at their heart, a standard that allows many developers to build a compatible solution to their interrelated products. “How do we understand the shape of the value system and the interfaces and how do we get interoperability across interfaces?” he asks. “You do that by having a level of standardisation.”
Particularly in the current environment, where compatibility is the order of the day and many services and products are required to work with multiple environments and software, being certain of the standards used in producing and testing the resources on which you rely is absolutely vital. “Imagine you’re a technological innovator,” says Steedman. “You need to quickly establish testing methods or verification methods – you’re going to need to have standard ways of doing that so that when you sell your product it can be tested.”
But innovation isn’t only a driver in consumer-facing tech. In the field of cell therapy, Williams maintains that standardisation is the scaffolding that helps to support every step forward. “One of the questions is, if you’ve got a cell, how do you measure its performance?” he says. “Do you measure it against the standard? Or do you have a standard material that you can use to validate your process?” Obviously without industry-wide standards, the efficacy of new solutions cannot be effectively gauged and benchmarked, making it nigh on impossible to rely on a therapy that is new to market.
So far, so good. But when a lot of SMEs have an eye on exports or are relying on a supply chain that might stretch halfway round the globe, how do you know that the standards on which you rely in the UK are the same standards being adhered to in China? Obviously, in an increasingly globalised trade market, none of us are operating in a vacuum and it’s important to understand how standards interact with one another on an international level.
And this is where the BSI’s real work comes in. Every country in the world has a national standards body and the BSI works with them to help ensure best practice is translated and replicated – within the EU they work to harmonise standards. “We withdraw conflicting national standards, so that wherever you are in Europe if you are compliant with a European standard, you can trade anywhere in Europe,” explains Steedman.
There are also global standards that help enterprises replicate good practice no matter where they trade – the main standards are handled by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and, for electro-technical products, by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC). When these standards are being formulated, representatives will be in attendance and discuss these with industry stakeholders in the UK to ensure the standards represent the best interests and practices of that industry. Afterwards, this is fed back on both a European and international level.
And for this reason, it’s vital for industry stakeholders to be leading the conversation in terms of standards. “There’s a constant surge or tide of interest around this because it’s so closely linked to international trade, barriers to trade, opportunities for trade, enablers for trade,” says Steedman. The more the UK’s SMEs get involved in the international discussion, the more they can ensure that their interests are best represented and there are as few blocks to international trade as possible. “It’s like having a passport, frankly; you see it as an enabler.”
Fortunately, the UK has an excellent reputation on the global stage when it comes to standards. And this is an opportunity that SMEs can’t overlook. Given the potential benefits of standards, they are one of the best tools at our disposal to innovate and boost international trade. So next time you hear someone decrying our slipping standards, let them know that there’s never been a brighter time for British standards.