ISO and The Hard Work of Trying to Rule Ourselves

I field frequent requests from members to engage in dialogue with some unspecified element of government to have a policy or practice changed. Procurement is a favourite of our community. Surely there are easy ways to automate the procurement process, to assure constructive feedback to unsuccessful bidders, to recognize the work of community members in pulling together complex proposals, etc. In my own range of experiences, there are many legendary failed efforts to secure contracts, assignments or establish longer term working partnerships. You may have your unsuccessful efforts recognized or you may not. Our efforts to change a policy, a standard, a process or a practice are often highly misguided. While you may see the wisdom of a change, how do you persuade millions of others to agree with you? How do you get bureaucracies to act on your behalf?

Courtesy of Creative Commons

CMC-Canada recently brought together a number of members to contribute to the process of establishing ISO standards for management consulting. It is a difficult journey that focuses more on philosophy, cultural differences, managing conflicting points of view, blending personalities and positioning for future stages in the standards development process, than about the all too familiar content. I am sure many of us could have written the standards in a weekend. Why are we having so much trouble getting down on paper what comes naturally? Some would argue that it is not about standard setting but about culture and about a subtle understanding of implicit processes. Content is almost a non-factor.

The first step was to have ourselves recognized as official participants – for that we needed to establish a Mirror Committee of sufficient size to demonstrate community interest (twenty of our members stepped forward). We then were integrated into the processes of the International Standards Organization (ISO) under the authority of Canada’s official representative and liaison – the Standards Council of Canada. We were obliged to work within their framework and use their collaborative platform.

Why we should care about knowledge

Processes have become a surrogate for a form of self-rule for many. While a project or an organizational change may be self-evident, it requires a defined or understood sequence of steps to help us become enlightened, see the possibilities, define a preferred solution and then translate what we do into what we agree needs to be done. While there are no specific motions or votes, we nevertheless stumble our way purposefully to an answer that is accepted by all – a form of self-rule.

If you harbour a secret love for history you will quickly come to realize that humankind has a long history of excellence in consumption and amusement but poverty of self-rule. Standards, procurement and even the running of our association are all expressions of some form of self-rule – not asking government to do it for us but rather doing it to ourselves. Assuming the moral authority to self-govern for the good of the public and, of course, ourselves. This can work if we stay within defined and mutually understood and accepted self-prescribed guidelines, policies, processes or accepted practise. That is what the Standards Council of Canada provided to the team.

If we see ourselves within the context of the society that we live in, it may provide a glimpse into why we find these processes so difficult to master. A simple ingredient for a stronger self-government (a stronger democracy) is a more engaged citizenry, something that requires a lot of work to achieve. We may have social media to connect us, but the quality of commentary is terribly negative and without substance. I would argue that knowledge does not feature extensively on social media and yet it is where public opinion is formed through fleeting engagement, when it is convenient – on our mobile devices, during commercials as we watch television, while cleaning up our daily barrage of emails. This not the same as reading, discussing or arguing issues with other rational citizens. Your opinion is more informed and stronger after weighing up alternative viewpoints and evidence. Why should we care?

Unlike the remit we accepted when we stepped forward to provide our input to an international standard, it was in sharp contrast to today’s apparent norm. Many decisions today are being influenced by public opinion – recent high profile dismissals widely reported and discussed throughout the media and public institutions – all without any due process.

What’s Missing?

Knowledge of politics and economics is an implement forged in the understanding of the history, concepts, institutions, facts, practices, rationales, tactics and strategies of both and it is these two subjects that dominate and shape our lives. It’s knowledge forged through collective application and its concern is public matters shared by a population: that is to say, through being put to use alongside others. In our own association, many decisions could be intelligently informed by past experiences – many of our issues today have been seen somewhere in our fifty year history. Furthermore, a sometimes ‘common sense’ or emotional answer may prove to be very costly if implemented without forethought and due diligence.

The ISO standards setting world has its own history and lessons learned based on the extensive experiences of countless numbers of experts and related contributors. Knowledge of the general process, an acute understanding of the politics of the community developing the standard become critical underpinnings to formulating a strategy to affect change or to have others accept your view of how the standard should be presented. This subtle and nuanced approach is more about diplomacy and timing than anything else. It is something to be mastered. You can imagine the frustration when an expert is inserted into such an environment without the background and understanding.

Once our basic knowledge of politics and economics of the situation is strong, it can be used for communicating, for organizing, for resisting, for keeping a government, a standards body (or ourselves) honest, for bringing about change. In politics, it is of use only when that knowledge is taken up by those who have it and put into service through serving on our governance bodies, by hosting seminars and lectures, through candidacies and votes, through marches and protests. In self-rule the same is true. The mechanisms that support decision-making differ but the required skills are the same.

The tool of knowledge both enables and orients its possessor, and with it members can self-educate and begin to exercise their right to self-government. Without that knowledge, it can be little more than a sundered mass or an aimless mob.
Again, within our own rich history as an association, the parallels are easy to spot. We may calibrate our understanding of politics and economics to our profession and our sector, but it is forged through history, concepts, institutions, etc. and forged through collective application. A strong knowledge of our business makes for stronger members. Application of lessons learned to ourselves makes for a stronger and more relevant association.

Where knowledge comes from is important. But exactly which bits of history, philosophy, literature, political science, sociology, psychology, communications theory and so on are included is less important than the fact that the one who learns about these things takes away a critical capacity to evaluate the current state of domestic or international affairs, to place that current state of affairs in some historical and moral context, to communicate his or her thoughts to others, and to translate knowledge into action. In short: the specific content is less important than the capacity to critically absorb it and to use it to self-govern; after all, citizens or members of CMC-Canada or participants in an ISO standards-setting process with a robust capacity for critical self-rule will be able to weed out the good or exceptional from the bad or flawed.

Once this capacity is developed, knowing about the past and present history and state of politics and economics allows us to orient ourselves in the present and direct ourselves towards the future. Knowing the history of politics and economics gives context; history becomes a compass for a journey.

Our journeys

In the West, this journey might take you from the fledgling settlements of pre-historic Mesopotamia across the wine dark seas of Ancient Greece and Rome, to the rising cathedrals of Medieval Europe and the chattering coffee houses of the 17th-century in which subjects and citizens of that same continent began to think out loud; it might carry you through the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the wars of the 20th-century, the digital and communications revolution, and up into and beyond the stratosphere.
In our association, the journey has taken us collectively from time-motion studies to simulations and big data analytics, from high-end strategy, to benchmarking and re-engineering to lean methodologies, to the internet and social media to converging of many disciplines. Elsewhere and for others, the journey might be different; but for the truly curious and ambitious, whatever form it takes, it will be one of many as we try to connect the past to better understand the present and anticipate the future.

For those involved in ISO standards setting, there is need to understand the game and its rules, what has and hasn’t worked, how to read and shape opinion, how to reconcile differences. In short, this journey represents a new and unfamiliar discipline – with its own strategies, stratagems, manoeuvres, politics, coalition building etc.

The sorts of journeys available to the self-educating citizen and to our members are diverse and countless—they may start at any number of beginnings and the paths they offer may twist and turn through any number of peoples, places, and eras, just as they may be viewed through any number of lenses. To presuppose a right or proper course is to specify what should instead be discovered and to undermine one of the most important points of self-education: developing the capacity to find one’s own way.
This is a perspective at the heart of healthy debate and provides a rationale for tolerance and a map for personal growth.

The education gap and the media

Human beings deprived of history (our collective memory) tend to become disoriented and easily frightened. Not only do we lose track of our own stories—who we are, where we’ve been, where we might be going—but our volunteers and members might forget why we formed an association in the first place. The blessed states of amnesia cannot support politics and economics, which incorporate not just history, but also concepts, apparatuses, facts, practices, rationales, tactics, and strategies.

The state of contemporary journalism might not be helping our collective self-rule. The rise of mass entertainment-as-edification (or media-as-fashion-show) is a waving of the white flag, conceding simultaneously that the market must know best and that the people must prefer diversion to self-government. The rise of the algorithm—which dictates who should you follow on Twitter, what you see in your Facebook newsfeed, which results are privileged by your search engine—is just as disconcerting. No longer does one have to bear the indignity of being exposed to an unwelcome utterance, thought, image, or idea. And while the focus of education turns to preparing students for the workforce, it undermines their capacity to acquire and use the sorts of knowledge required for competent self-government—that is knowledge in the broadest sense of politics and economics.

What we do together

I think of knowledge of politics and economics as an awareness and understanding of the things we do together that are directed towards some public end; that is, things we do for ourselves or for others that impact how we live together. The two are inextricably linked and must be so; after all, we are animals who live in communities governed by what happens in these two fields.

What unites us all and what links us to countless individuals from the past and to those who will be in the future is the human imperative to live in a community and our consequent need to both govern and be governed. Understanding and respecting that imperative implies bringing about better knowledge of politics and economics. Knowledge of these fields may be good in and of themselves, but they are also essential for the more practical and essential purpose of building capacity for self-rule.

Many of us do not engage in politics or in the broad issues of public debate. However, involvement in CMC-Canada – as a committee member, sitting on a Board, advocating a position – is an exercise in engagement. Extending personal engagement to your community of professionals and the broader community is a positive contribution to citizenship. It makes us all better – contrariness, considered opinion, creative destruction – are all part of citizenship. Our collective vigilance makes for better institutions.

So, what about the ISO Standards process? The result may not be to our liking. However, the act of engagement is a tremendous learning exercise and is a great teacher of self-governance.  The journey is not over and will very likely be repeated in future as standards tend to evolve….and now we know.

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