Standards are a way of communicating – a kind of common language – in the form of a technical specification. Often it is an ability to communicate across languages to avoid misunderstandings. Standards only exist because we use them, and because we benefit from using them. If they did not bring value, their justification for existing would no longer apply.

Standards have always existed in one form or another. The first standards were made to enable trade. It was important to have standards defining the product and how to test them e.g. by measurement. Standards for safety are also some of the oldest standards.

Today there are more standards than ever, and they are common in most areas and in a wide range of fields. Some standards reflect common practice and are taken over from one generation to another; other standards are developed by consortia or by formal standardization organizations.

There are a tremendous number of civil standards in the world and standards developed in the formal standardization system (e.g. CEN, CENELEC, ETSI, ISO, IEC, ITU) are only the tip of the iceberg. However, it is these formal standards that often have the highest impact and the widest recognition in the global society and on which we will mainly focus in section.

The other standards belonging to ”the iceberg” vary considerably from company specific standards to systems describing methodology like the Gregorian calendar, music notes and rules for sports (e.g. soccer game rules).

Definitions of a standard

There is not just one definition of a standard – there are several. In the Oxford Dictionary, six different meanings of a standard are listed. The most relevant definition in this perspective is: Something used as a measure, norm, or model in comparative evaluations. That is a very broad definition! The different organizations using or producing standards have made their own definitions. The main definitions are given below.

CEN CENELEC   Document, established by consensus and approved by a recognized body, that provides, for common and repeated use, rules, guidelines or characteristics for activities or their results, aimed at the achievement of the optimum degree of order in a given context.

NOTE Standards should be based on the consolidated results of science, technology and experience, and aimed at the promotion of optimum community benefits.

ISO IEC  Document, established by consensus and approved by a recognized body, that provides, for common and repeated use, rules, guidelines or characteristics for activities or their results, aimed at the achievement of the optimum degree of order in a given context.

European Commission Τechnical specification, adopted by a recognized standardization body, for repeated or continuous application, with which compliance is not compulsory, and which is one of the following:

(a)   ‘International standard’ means a standard adopted by an international standardization body;

(b)  ‘European standard’ means a standard adopted by a European standardization organization;

(c)   ‘Harmonized standard’ means a European standard adopted on the basis of a request made by the Commission for the application of Union harmonization legislation;

(d)  ‘National standard’ means a standard adopted by a national standardization body;

WTΟ: Document approved by a recognized body, that provides, for common and repeated use, rules, guidelines or characteristics for products or related processes and production methods, with which compliance is not mandatory. It may also include or deal exclusively with terminology, symbols, packaging, marking or labelling requirements as they apply to a product, process or production method.

Explanatory Note: The terms as defined in ISO/IEC Guide 2 cover products, processes and services. This Agreement deals only with technical regulations, standards and conformity assessment procedures related to products or processes and production methods. Standards as defined by ISO/IEC Guide 2 may be mandatory or voluntary. For the purpose of this Agreement standards are defined as voluntary and technical regulations as mandatory documents. Standards prepared by the international standardization community are based on consensus. This Agreement covers also documents that are not based on consensus.

Definition of Standardization

The activity of establishing, with regard to actual or potential problems, provisions for common and repeated use, aimed at the achievement of the optimum degree of order in a given context. 

Source: ISO/IEC Guide 2:2004 

The characteristics of a standard

The characteristics of a standard can give a good understanding of the nature of a standard. The characteristics that give standards value is the fact that they are:

Voluntary and market driven – which means that every interested party can participate in the making of a standard and provide comments when a standard is submitted to public consultation. The decision to develop new standards is driven by market needs/ requests.

Consensus based – which means that all standards are subject to dialogue in order to establish general agreement characterized by the absence of sustained opposition to substantial issues by any important part of the concerned interests and by a process that involves seeking to take into account the views of all parties concerned and to reconcile any conflicting arguments (definition of consensus from EN 45020). Afterward the standard goes through a formal vote procedure to get it approved.

Approved by a recognized body – which means that a recognized standards body such as CEN, CENELEC, ISO, IEC or a national standards body has approved the document and that the document has gone through the necessary procedures, public consultations, etc.

Different types of standards

At the moment, there are more than 35 000 different CEN, CENELEC, ISO and IEC standards. Additionally, there are tens of thousands of national standards published by national standards bodies throughout the world.

Standards cover a wide range of subjects. There are different types of standards for different types of tasks. One way of categorizing them is by requirements:

Dimension systems – e.g. paper formats, threads, classification systems

Performance – e.g. breaking strength, energy performance, safety, ergonomics, noise

Methods/testing – e.g. test schemes, chemical analysis, documentation of performance

Management systems – e.g. quality, risk, energy or environmental management

Symbols – e.g. pictograms, symbols for machines

Terminology – e.g. definitions of main terms within different fields

Products – e.g. toys, electrical equipment, construction products

“Basic” standards – e.g. SI  9 units.

As the general rule, standards are voluntary to use, however, standards are sometimes referred to by national or regional (European) legislation, which in practice makes them mandatory. Standards can also become mandatory if they form part of a contract between parties or if a company announce that their product fulfils the requirements of a voluntary standard.

De jure vs de facto

De jure and de facto standards are distinct and subject to different requirements in terms of preparation, process, revision, etc.

De jure standards are formal standards – standards developed by official standardization organizations. These organizations can be international (like ISO and IEC), regional (like the European CEN, CENELEC, ETSI) or national (like NF, DIN, DS, etc.) and have been given formal recognition to produce formal standards. De jure standards are developed under the requirements of the formal standardization system which implies consensus, voluntarism and the fact that they are market-driven. One important characteristic to stress is the fact that de jure standards can be purchased by any interested party.

De facto standards are, so to speak, the remaining group of standards, i.e. standards that are not developed by one of the above-mentioned recognized bodies. These are standards that have gained currency over time e.g. music notes. Other de facto standards could be a result of one or more companies’ products where the products become a ‘standard’ itself. Due to the different kinds of de facto standards, they are developed in different ways. De facto standards can be developed by consortia or fora, where the development process has great similarities with the formal standardization process by e.g. being consensus based and including public consultations. These types of de facto standards are often developed by standards developing organizations (SDOs). In other cases, de facto standards are developed by one organization or a closed circle of organizations, where the development process is often unknown to other parties. In the latter case, the developer(s) may own the utilization of the standardized technology. De facto standards developed in this way sometimes result in different standards describing the functionality of the same type of product. Here several standards emerge and compete for the market. An example of this was the battle between VHS and Betamax for the home videocassette recorder market. Needless to say, VHS won the battle and got to set the standard on the market – but ultimately the DVD took the prize.

There are different strengths and weaknesses in the different approaches and sometimes a standard can start as a de facto standard and end up being approved as a de jure standard. One example of this is the pdf document. This started as a de facto standard but was eventually approved by ISO and is today described in ISO 32000. Many people throughout the world use the pdf every day, as it is one of the most widespread and compatible file formats that exists

A Map of the Standardization world

Standards are prepared at various levels: some standards are developed for national purposes; others are developed and published for the European region. Furthermore, there are standards, which are used globally. National standardization organizations are responsible for preparing national standards and participating in European and international standardization. Each European country has its own National Standardization Organization, which is responsible for developing national standards and participates in the European as well as international standardization.

De jure standardization

De jure European standards are developed and published by CEN (the European Committee for Standardization), CENELEC (European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization and ETSI, the European Telecommunications Standards Institute). They act as a cooperation organization for the national standards bodies of all the EU and EFTA countries. CEN has over 30 member countries. CEN and CENELEC are international non-profit associations that are officially recognized as European Standardization Organizations alongside ETSI, the European Telecommunications Standards Institute.

CEN and CENELEC member countries are obliged to adopt each European standard as a national standard. They also have to withdraw any existing national standard that conflicts with a new European standard. All of the European standards that have been approved and adopted by CEN or CENELEC are therefore automatically accepted and recognized in all of the member countries of CEN and CENELEC. The aim of the procedure is to guarantee a common collection of standards for the European region. Standards published by CEN and CENELEC are identified by a unique numeric identifier with the prefix ”EN” on the front page of the standard.

De jure international standards are developed and published by ISO (International Organization for Standardization), established in 1947. The national standards bodies from over 160 countries are members of ISO. The standards for electrical, electronic and related technologies are developed and published by IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission), who have more than 80 member countries. At the international level, ITU develops standards for the telecommunication field.

The member countries can adopt international standards as national standards, although this is voluntary. CEN and CENELEC cooperate with ISO and IEC according to mutual agreements so that international standards (ISO or IEC) are often adopted as European (EN) standards, in which case they are also nationally adopted as e.g. EN ISO or EN ISO/ IEC standards in the member countries. In addition to working toward a coherent standards collection at both European and international level, standardization bodies of different regions cooperate to ensure standards complement rather than conflict with each other. For instance, around 30 % of the CEN standards are based on the work made carried out by ISO. Around 75 % of the European electro-technical standards of CENELEC are based on the international standards prepared by IEC. This means that through national implementation, many national standards are based on or identical to international standards.

The relation between standardization organizations at national, European and international level is depicted below:

  • International IEC ISO ITU
  • National National Standardization Organization

Other standard developing organizations

There are organizations specializing in developing standards other than the formal standardization organizations described above. This means that their core business is standardization, but they do not have government-related accreditation or a formal relationship with a government as the formal standardization organizations do.

These organizations structure their standardization process in a way that is often similar to that of the formal standardization organizations, as consensual documents developed by committees that are open to all interested parties (Hesser et Al 2010). Examples of organizations specialized in standardization are: the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) etc.

Consortia and market dominance

Standards can also be developed by consortia or come into being as an effect of market dominance (de facto standards). The process being open only for those invited to join characterizes this ways of developing standards. Consortia are often formed with the purpose of advancing a particular technology and standards are developed to promote practices set by a single company (Hesser et Al 2010).

By developing a standard in this way, companies or consortia can acquire a large market share by dominating the market. However, this is also a risky strategy, as it can result in standard wars where more than one company or consortia try to set the standard for a market.

How does the standardization process work?

Standards are developed in technical committees and their sub-committees as well as in working groups. There are several hundred technical committees in the system of CEN, CENELEC, ISO and IEC. The member organizations contribute to and assist in the standardization work where they represent the interests of their stakeholders. All member organizations have the right to participate in the work of all the committees and can nominate experts to the working groups. In the course of international committee work, member bodies can be designated ‘P’ (participating) members or ‘O’ (observing) members.

Participation in standards development in the formal system is open to everybody. It is voluntary work based on consensus. The standardization committees should preferably consist of experts from each relevant sector of society, e.g. industry and commerce, consulting agencies, academia and research bodies, consumers and labour, public authorities as well as government. Participation from a wide field of experts leads to creation of agreed practice within the field.

The lifecycle of a de jure standard

Drafting a standard goes through a certain path from a draft standard to the phase of a public consultation, balloting, publishing, and finally, the implementation of a standard.

The stages for developing a formal standard are depicted below. Minor differences can appear form organization to organization.

  • Proposal and approval
  • Drafting and commenting stage
  • Public consultation and vote
  • Draft to formal vote (possible)
  • Final publication

A public consultation means that each member body releases the draft standard for public comments in their own country. The opinion of each member country is developed by consensus in a national mirror committee or on the basis of public consultation. If the text of the standard is approved in the consultation stage there is no need to have a further vote.

Revision is also a stage of the lifecycle of a standard. A technical committee makes sure that a standard is up-to-date, and whether a standard needs to be revised or not is checked regularly. The first review is required to take place within five years after a standard has been implemented.

Detailed Description of the Standardization Process in CEN.

How to influence the content of a standard

Many people have the impression that standards are written by the standardization organizations themselves. This is a significant misunderstanding of the core values of the standardization system; i.e. the involvement, consensus and influence of all interested parties. Standards are the distilled wisdom of people with expertise in their subject matter who know the needs of the organizations they represent – people such as manufacturers, sellers, buyers, customers, researchers, trade associations, users, regulators, etc. The role of the standardization organizations is to ensure that the standardization system works and that all relevant stakeholders come to a common agreement on what is the best standard for a particular need.

Standardization organizations is open for participation for all interested parties. Participation typically takes place through the network that the national standardization organizations constitute under the European or international organization (e.g. CEN or ISO). If you wish to influence a standard, you should join the national standardization organization. In fact, standardization organizations strive to have as broad a representation in the standardization committees as possible. Joining your national standardization organization may even allow you to become part of the European or international standardization activities.

How to get involved?

Standardization is open to everybody. The easiest way to find out about ongoing standardization activities and to get involved in standardization is to contact your National Standardization Body. (A list of member countries with contact information can be found e.g. on the European and international organization’s webpages). The member bodies create mirror committees for the committees and areas of national interest.

A mirror committee is a standardization group that gives the national stakeholders an opportunity to gain insight and participate in European and/or international standardization from a national level with a national perspective and in the national language.

Different ways to be involved in standardization

Following standardization in your field of interest helps you to anticipate any forthcoming changes.

See below the details of the different levels of involvement in the standards development process;

  • Becoming a member of a national mirror committee

Membership of a national mirror committee offers the possibility of following standardization work from the very beginning and gives a chance to have a say in the national comments. It is possible to get involved with the work of mirror committees through national standardization bodies.

  • Becoming a delegate in a technical committee

As a delegate, you represent your national mirror committee and thus your country in the European or international technical committee.

  • Membership of working groups

As a member of a working group, you can take part in the development of the contents of a standard. Members of the working groups also deal with the comments gathered from each participating country during public consultations, and decide on eventual changes. The working groups can be joined through national standardization bodies.

  • Submitting comments at the public consultation stage

All draft standards must go through a public consultation, during which anyone interested in the matter can approve/ disapprove the draft standard content with technical and/or editorial comments.

Referencing Civil Standards in Defense Standards

Practical referencing of civil standards in a consistent manner and in the appropriate section within a Defense Standard is a valuable tool that eliminates the repetition of requirements and tests adequately set forth elsewhere. It also helps to minimize the costs of compliance, reduces excessive citation of documents, eliminates ambiguities, and helps to identify which civil standard is required for the implementation of a Defense Standard.

In the section “defense standards” we are presenting how you can reference civil standards within defense standards.

Source note:

The information provided in this section is part of the Text Book for Higher Education ”World Built on Standards” issued by the Danish Standards Foundation.