I've been thinking about this since I published the Standards Primer a month ago. In the next two to five years, Google will be challenged by a technology standards effort that it will need to encourage or manage in its mission to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Such efforts cannot be erected quickly (as demonstrated most recently by Microsoft), and preparations for that day should begin in the near future. Google is also in a unique position to turn the standards development process on its head.
Here are a number of ideas for how Google can plan for the future in the most flexible and cost effective manner, and contribute a unique and valuable re-think of the standards development process. Well organized, a standards function can be an order of magnitude more effective at growing or defending a company’s business.
A Standards Office for Google
There are a set of strategic questions to be answered by a standards function at Google: What standards should be developed or encouraged to reduce the friction of organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful, or to open up new areas for growth? Is Android a reference implementation? An open source community? Does it require a standard? Are there micro-format standards that would make indexing web sites, libraries, or health records easier? What standards could others be planning that need to be managed because they threaten Google customer engagements or limit growth? Is a search results standard good or bad for business?
Google has a perceived public culture around serving customers, aggressively innovating, doing no evil, and having fun. These attributes should be celebrated equally loudly in their standards function which for most companies is portrayed as staid, conservative and dull.
As with all business functions, success in the standards function is a matter of organization, preparation and execution. To succeed, you need to:
- Have a strategic planning function that knows how best to recommend using the company assets to develop and respond to standards and standards-like programs and communities.
- Be able to find, organize, and educate potential participants and practitioners within Google quickly as the need arises.
- Be in a position to influence external participants and organizations through successive layers of trust, i.e. you need to be participating and be visible.
The following is the start of some considerations for a standards office at Google:
- Organize the standards office to be a small number of standards strategy staff. This group would have the responsibility for education, evaluation, organization and co-ordination, and forward strategy planning.
- Individual technical staff are generally the first group of people an organization discovers in their own ranks participating in standards. They are the first line of trust and influence. They are in the worst position when it comes to IP risk or reward. Standards practitioners often develop out of the initial group of standards participants. These practitioners are people that have an interest in the success of the standards efforts at a more organizational level and begin to see cross-standards influences.
- Educating participants and practitioners is key to ensure they know how to best get things done, protect the company’s investments, and how to keep others within the company informed of status. The standards office should be responsible for developing and delivering the educational materials.
- Organizing and co-ordinating the efforts of participants and practitioners is important if a company is to get the best return on the investment of having them involved. The initial participants are already building trust in their respective organizations. They are the front line and need to be supported in their roles.
- Google has offices in 27 countries. This is an opportunity to build trust with 27 national member bodies in ISO. Some countries have rules about participation (you need to attend so many of the past meetings to be eligible to vote for example). Some countries are more relevant than others, because they hold particular influence as well. But Google is in a great position to begin here.
- The standards team should be responsible for co-ordination with legal and corporate affairs and the business teams (product marketing and development) for standards-related efforts.
- The standards office should also be responsible for monitoring ongoing activities in the standards development world to watch for particular efforts that should be joined or managed.
- The standards office should develop forward thinking strategy in the standards space. Based on current products and future opportunities, what standards efforts might be undertaken at Google at what cost to best enable customers and users?
The investment need not be great. Google is in a great position to begin. But there are even more interesting ideas in the standards arena and Google is in a unique position to fulfill them.
Turning Standards on their Head
Taking a typical Google viewpoint of what could be done with infinite cycles, storage, and bandwidth when thinking about standards opens up new opportunities in the standards engagement space that come back to Google’s mission to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible.
Developing interoperability standards is a labour intensive process. A working group meets to debate and discuss the nuts and bolts of the specification, but that act and its attendant work have lots of friction in the system:
- Meetings need to organize and track input documents, minutes, and output documents that pertain to the development of the specification that will become a standard.
- Specification development is often as complex as developing complex software, where a collection of document sources (text, markup+metadata, diagrams, tables), need to come together into a single known identifiable “printable” document that is easily available, indexed and searchable.
- Draft specifications need to be managed and balloted and the votes and comments from the balloting process need to be tallied, tracked and managed against document drafts.
- Interpretations (bug reports) need to be managed against published standards.
- Amendments need to be managed against the history and evolution of the standard specification.
- Many organizations develop software reference implementations for the specification, and the source code needs to be managed as a software project as well as against the specification (and its drafts).
- Some organizations develop test suites for conformance verification and validation against a standard, and again both the software itself needs to be managed, as well as the link to the specifications.
While different standards organizations exist to fulfill different missions, and so have different structures, policies, and practices, this lack of underlying consistency leads to a diverging base of information rather than a converging one. Regardless of the differing policies and practices of the standards development organizations, the friction in the system is common and causes lots of problems.
- Every working group and organization tackles these problems in their own ways, cobbling together the tools and processes that meet the standards development organization’s (SDO) policies and procedures. It is labour intensive, repetitive, and best practices seldom surface across diverse tools and organizations.
- History and knowledge are lost, both in process and content.
- Participation in the process is limited.
- Promulgation of the work can likewise be limited.
- The resulting specifications that become standards are generally not accessible and searchable in a consistent way.
- The quality of the specifications can suffer due to a lack of infrastructure and support.
In the end, regardless of policy and procedure tied to specific SDO, they all need the same basic toolset to support the process. Google has the building blocks in http://code.google.com and “Google Apps for your Domain” to develop http://standards.google.com providing the tool infrastructure and best practices to solve many of the friction problems faced by standards developers.
Regardless of an SDO’s policies and procedures, individual working groups can more easily deliver standards that meet the needs of the SDO and its constituencies in ways that would make the standards more discoverable, accessible, and useable. Using this as the opening olive branch, while developing a strategic standards office would put Google in an excellent position quickly.
Google is in an excellent position to begin their standards strategy function. The effort should be undertaken soon to provide the best most effective platform for success in this strategic area going forward.