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The Burdens That Standards Bring--Roger Dickeson

November 2000
Be careful what you wish for. Your wish might be granted. At this moment, many people involved in printing are wishing for, and spending time and money promoting, digital and specification standards for our industry. I wouldn't dare suggest that they do otherwise lest I be charged with denigrating the flag, motherhood and apple pie. What I dare to remind all well-intentioned parties is that there are tyrannies imposed by the deadly legacies that standards often become.

Prime example: the inch, foot, yard and acre are standards in the United States. Try, just try, to change to the metric measure standard in use by most of the rest of the modern world. We've tried and failed to change to a system that is far more effective. We are slaves of a legacy growing out of the measure of some ancient king's arm from nose to finger tip. We suffer a gallon of gas, a quart of milk, a pound of paper, miles per hour rather than kilometers, Fahrenheit rather than Centigrade temperature measures, and we have to instruct our calculators and computers to round off any conversion calculations beyond X decimal points.

Consider the operating system in use by 90 percent of the world's microcomputers. Back in 1980, Microsoft developed an operating system based on a measure of Bill Gates' arm from nose to fingertip or some such. By achieving a marketing critical mass, it became the de facto standard. Now we, and Microsoft, are stuck with it because of the thousands of applications, industries and businesses that are dependent on MS DOS and its bastard child Windows.

Besides "standards" and "legacies" there are other like words we use such as "paradigms," "cultures" and "metaphors." All of these terms deal with efforts to achieve a uniformity that, in time, becomes a constraint on change. Measures, operating systems, languages and theologies—all are efforts to impose disciplines on human behavior and thinking. In so doing they make it difficult to advance with improvements in technology and thought.

The paradigms—the standards—of a company make it impossible to change an established business in the face of disruptive innovation. So says Clayton Christensen in his "Innovator's Dilemma." Certain company behavior becomes so deeply embedded, it is incapable of radical modification. And so the company must perish.

Mergers and acquisitions frequently fail because the standards of two companies just cannot mesh. The tyranny of the legacy can be fatal. For this reason some printing companies have found greater success in building new plants than in attempting to unite cultures. The word frequently used to justify printing mergers is "synergy," meaning that the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts. Planned synergy in mergers more often than not results in one plus one equals 1.5. The standards of the two companies won't harmonize.
 

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