The production of formal, accredited standards has to be a repeatable process. The quality and integrity of the results depends on it. Like all good engineering practices, well-documented processes ensure that technical standards are created and maintained as well as they possibly can be.
Standards-setting and standards-developing organizations need to have detailed principles, policies, procedures, and practices. These vary from organization to organization, but they usually take the following overall steps: ideation, project approval, draft production, governance approval, publication, and maintenance.
The standardization processes are not static. They evolve as the organizations learn and as the industrial and political climates change. Everyone involved in creating standards should familiarize themselves with the organization’s processes under which they work.
The IEEE Standards Association’s policies, governance, and processes are detailed on its Web site and are publicly available. They constitute numerous documents that address practically every nuance of the standardization process. A simplified description of this process can help standards participants—or people who are just curious—get started in understanding how it all works, without having to read every document first.
Knowing about the process also gives non-participants and standards users new insights into the process and can increase their confidence in the standards they depend upon every day. There are also some unpublished hints that people experienced with the process know about that can help expedite the production of IEEE standards (see the figure).
Before going step by step through the IEEE standardization process, it’s important to list the five principles in which it’s rooted: consensus, due process, openness, right to appeal, and balance. These principles provide checks and balances throughout standards development that bring fairness, breadth, and relevance to IEEE standards.
The first step in developing an IEEE standard is, obviously, coming up with an idea for a standard. Ideas usually arise when there is a market or safety need. A group (large or small) of people or companies determines that a standard will help their industry or field.
This group can operate under the IEEE Standards Association’s umbrella for up to six months before it must be officially sanctioned as a working group. Until the group receives official approval to start a standards project, the group is called a study group. Hint: a standard shouldn’t be a pet project—a “shiny object” or “squirrel” that won’t serve a useful purpose.
The next step is to investigate whether there is already a standard or a project underway within the IEEE Standards Association. Capitalizing on existing work is wise, economical, and expeditious. Hint: starting a competing standards project means a “standards war” could ensue.
If there isn’t a relevant existing standard or work in progress, the next step is to find a sponsor for the standard-to-be. The sponsor can help scope the proposed standard, may find additional people to work on it, and will oversee the standard’s development as it moves through the process. A sponsor can be either a committee within an IEEE technical society or a Standards Coordinating Committee (SCC), which spans multiple technical societies.
At present, there are 42 technical societies and nine SCCs within the IEEE. Sponsors can be found for a wide variety of areas among the societies and SCCs. If no sponsor exists in the interest category for the new standard, there are two other possibilities: the Corporate Advisory Board and the Standards Association Standards Board itself. Hint: the IEEE Web site has a lot of information about potential sponsors. The IEEE Standards Association staff can help sort through it.
A working group completes the bulk of the work to create a standard. The working group chair and other key players should be identified next. This group should decide which type of standards project it wants: entity or individual.
In an entity project, it’s “one entity, one vote.” An entity can be a company, university, consultant, governmental body, or another standards organization. In an individual project, every individual gets one vote regardless of how many individuals there are from a single entity. Hint: the type of project can be changed later, but it’s easier and saves time to decide the type at the beginning.
Another consideration to be made early on is what kind of standard is desired. It can be a document of mandatory requirements, or recommended practices, or a guide for using a particular technology. IEEE standards can have a variety of characteristics, from a simple list of terms and definitions to device specifications to engineering principles. Keeping the standard from creeping outside its intended scope is expeditious and necessary for a usable, final standard.
Working groups are open for anyone to participate. People or companies can’t be prevented from joining, unless a person or company hasn’t followed the rules written in the IEEE and IEEE Standards Association governing documents. Unethical behavior, failure to pay any required (reasonable) fees, and blatant disregard of the process are examples of when working group participation can be stopped. Hint: standards may also have business considerations to take into account. Technical participants should seek help from their companies or the sponsor if they aren’t experienced with business aspects of creating a standard.
Obviously, working group members should have good technical knowledge and be willing to compromise with others to achieve the common goal of producing a standard. The group should also have a balance of members who can represent the requirements of both suppliers and consumers. Academics and governmental representatives can bring additional balance to the working group. It’s also beneficial to have geographically diverse representation to address standards requirements with a global view. Hint: if participants are physically distant, rotating the times of conference calls can make everyone feel respected. A periodic face-to-face all-day meeting can do wonders to build consensus.
The IEEE Standards Association must officially approve new standards projects. The next step is to open a PAR: a Project Authorization Request. The author of the PAR (usually the person who will become the working group chair and consult with the rest of the working group members) uses an online system called “myProject” to submit required information.
The PAR includes important information such as a descriptive name for the standard, the standard’s purpose and scope, who will be the working group chair, how long the project is expected to take, how many entities will participate (for entity projects), and so on. Formation of a complete PAR is critical for it to be approved by the IEEE Standards Association. The PAR is actually a legal document that assigns copyright to the IEEE and provides the IEEE with indemnification. Hint: assigning copyright does not mean the owners of original works lose their rights to create derivatives. Consult legal counsel for interpretations and explanations.
The New Standards Committee (NesCom) reviews PARs on a regular basis, with publicly published submission deadlines. NesCom is a standing committee of the IEEE Standards Association’s Standards Board. It examines the PAR for completeness and clarity. The scope of the standard, its descriptive title, its purpose, and the name of the sponsor and working group chair are among the required pieces of information for the PAR. NesCom members can send comments and questions back to the author of the PAR for clarifications and corrections. Hint: believe it or not, spelling and grammar are important. A sloppy PAR is a candidate for disapproval.
NesCom sends its recommendations for approving the PAR to the IEEE Standards Association’s Standards Board, which takes the recommendations under advisement and decides on the PAR’s final approval or disapproval. Hint: projects are authorized by the Standards Board to last no more than four years. Should a working group need more time, an extension PAR must be submitted and approved before four years have passed.
Once the PAR is approved, the working group begins work in earnest. Ground rules known as policies and procedures need to be established to ensure the working group adheres to the IEEE Standards Association’s basic principles and governing documents. Fortunately, there is a template for working group policies and procedures so the group doesn’t have to create them from scratch. Hint: the working group’s policies and procedures are subject to random review by the IEEE Standards Association governance, so skipping the step to create them could cause significant delay later in the process.
Now the working group can get down to business, creating its “draft standard.” It’s a draft until it’s finally approved and published. The draft is a technical specification of engineering practices, processes, formats, and such. Often it starts from existing technology or documentation that is contributed by members of the working group. Using contributions as a starting point helps expedite the development of the draft standard. Hint: securing an experienced technical editor to write the draft standard per the working group’s direction can significantly lighten the load on working group members and noticeably increase the quality of the draft. Another hint: the chair should always start each meeting with a call for any known essential patents. This is the trickiest part of standards development, especially when technology contributions are made. Be very sensitive to copyright as well.
The working group chair is vital to the success of the project. The chair makes sure that the work progresses, action items are addressed, meeting minutes are taken, agendas for future meetings are published ahead of time, and policies and procedures are followed. Working groups have their own criteria for earning voting rights as documented in their policies and procedures.
The chair might not be allowed to vote except to break a tie, but needs to make sure that voting rights criteria, such as meeting attendance, are tracked for the entire working group. The chair is also instrumental in driving consensus and settling disagreements that may arise. Hint: a tracking system for managing “bugs” and updates to the draft can ease the burden of the chair and make all concerns visible to the whole group so nothing is lost as the draft evolves.
As the draft develops, the working group can take regular straw votes to keep its mindshare going in the same direction. If a change or an addition to the draft is not acceptable to most of the group, or if the minority vocally opposes it, it’s a good idea to hash out a solution before proceeding. The “final” version of the draft standard is then sent from the working group to the sponsor. Hint: be careful to use the proper words in the draft. “Shall,” “should,” and “may” have specific connotations, and “must” is not a good word to use at all.
Disagreements inevitably occur in developing the draft standard. While some members may become upset and the group may go through a stormy period, this can actually be a healthy part of the process. It can bring out concepts and suggestions for improving the draft that might otherwise not surface if all the working group members simply agree with each other all of the time. It’s the chair’s duty to manage disagreement and corral it into consensus in an unbiased fashion. Hint: Robert’s Rules of Order is a powerful tool in keeping meetings under control and recognizing the voice of each working group member.
Throughout the process, if a working group member or other person feels that policies and procedures have been violated or other wrongdoing such as dominance by a single interest has occurred, that person can submit a formal appeal up through the chain of governance of the IEEE Standards Association. The appeal should first go to the sponsor, assuming the working group chair is unable to resolve the issue within the working group.
An appeals board will acknowledge, consider, and answer the appeal according to a timetable in the rules of the IEEE Standards Association. As with courts of law, the appeal can be elevated through the hierarchy of IEEE Standards Association governance. Hint: an appeal is a serious matter and should not be filed simply because a person doesn’t like a decision taken by the working group. It should never be frivolous.
Before the draft standard leaves the working group, an editor (not the technical editor) from the IEEE Standards Association staff will review the draft for grammar and spelling, proper copyright notices, and the like. The editor works with the working group chair during this step and can make suggestions but cannot make technical changes. Hint: the name of the standard plus its scope and purpose stated in the draft needs to match those that were in the PAR. If not, the whole process may be frustratingly disrupted.
When the draft standard is completed and the sponsor agrees that it’s finished, the sponsor starts the process of balloting. The sponsor forms a “ballot pool” of interested entities or individuals who will vote to approve (or not) the draft standard. Forming the ballot pool takes time. It’s a good idea for the sponsor to start this step as the draft nears completion, not when it’s final, to avoid delays.
The ballot pool must consist of a balance of interests such as users, suppliers, academia, government, large companies, small companies, hardware providers, software vendors, etc., depending on the field that the standard will be deployed in. Members of the ballot pool need to meet certain requirements such as membership in the IEEE. Rules for forming the ballot pool differ from one sponsor to another, so the working group chair should consult with the sponsor to understand the rules. It’s important to note that the ballot group cannot change during the entire balloting process. Hint: anyone can join a ballot pool without being invited first. The balloting system allows interested lurkers to participate, but they should do so responsibly.
The voting (balloting) period usually lasts 30 to 60 days. Each person in the ballot pool can cast a vote to approve, approve with comments, disapprove, disapprove with comments, or abstain. In the IEEE Standards Association, standards approval is not a simple majority. Instead, at least 75% of those in the ballot pool have to send in their ballots. Then, at least 75% of the returned ballots have to be for approval. Further, if 30% or more votes abstain, the ballot fails. This high bar of approval is one of the reasons why IEEE standards are well known to be driven by consensus. Hint: it’s counterproductive and annoying to vote “no” without a comment explaining why.
A ballot resolution group is tasked with answering all comments that are submitted with the ballots. Comments are categorized as technical or editorial. Again, consensus is the operative. However, comments from a minority should not be used to harm the standard or override the majority. Ideally, the working group will be able to turn all “no” votes into “yes” votes, but sometimes that’s not possible. Hint: comments that are intended to add features to the draft standard that were rejected by the majority in the working group can be considered to be “out of scope.”
If the initial round of balloting and answering comments results in meeting the 75/75/30% rule, the ballot passes and congratulations are in order for the working group. The draft standard can move to the next step. If the rule hasn’t been met, the ballot fails. Hint: don’t give up. The balloting can be repeated until the standard passes.
When the ballot passes, the next step is a final review of the draft standard by the Review Committee, RevCom. As another standing committee of the IEEE Standards Association, RevCom ensures that the entire process has been followed properly. It checks everything from ballot comment resolution to keeping the draft within the scope of the PAR to ensuring that the fundamental principles of consensus, due process, openness, and balance have been honored. Hint: while RevCom does not review the draft standard from a technical perspective, its members are sticklers when it comes to process. Don’t expect to get away with anything in RevCom.
RevCom is not the last step in the process. When RevCom approves the draft standard, it’s merely a recommendation to the IEEE Standards Association Standards Board. The Standards Board makes the final approval (or disapproval) of the draft standard during its subsequent meeting. RevCom’s recommendations for approving draft standards are included in what’s called the “Consent Agenda” of the Standards Board. This is the part of the meeting agenda that allows the Standards Board to easily vote “yes” on many items at one time. Hint: want to cause a disturbance in the Force? Cause a member of the Standards Board to pull a RevCom recommendation off of the Consent Agenda and put it onto the regular agenda.
When the IEEE Standards Association Standards Board approves the draft standard, it immediately becomes an officially ratified standard. The working group should have a party. The standard then goes off to publishing, which can take a few weeks. The published media are print (yes, really) and PDF. The standard can be purchased from the IEEE Standards Association Web site’s Standards Store, as part of the IEEE Xplore Digital Library, through the IEEE Contact Center, which serves international offices and from approved resellers and distributors. Hint: check to see if your company has a subscription to IEEE Xplore Library. Don’t pay twice for standards.
At this point in the process, the working group may choose to disband. However, it’s a good idea for the chair to keep in contact with the members. Standards can have a long life (the good ones do), with interpretations, updates, revisions, and corrections needed along the way. The working group members are the best people to take care of the standard throughout its life. Hint: using the word “corrigenda” makes people think you’re really smart.
When the standard needs to be revised, updated, or corrected after it’s published, a PAR is needed. Plus, every 10 years, the standard must be reaffirmed, which also requires a PAR. Changing or reaffirming the standard takes it back to the beginning of the process. The PAR is submitted and the cycle begins again. Hint: if the change is simple errata like a typographical mistake, a PAR is not required. All other corrections do require a PAR.
Over time, a standard may become obsolete. In this case, it can be withdrawn. The sponsor makes the withdrawal request and a ballot is issued. This time, the ballot has to receive a 50% return from the ballot pool with 75% approval from the returns. The return rate is lower than a regular ballot because it can be difficult to get a higher rate of return from balloters who no longer care about an obsolete standard. Hint: if a standard is not reaffirmed or updated after the 10-year period, it becomes inactive.
Three other standing committees of the IEEE Standards Association can come into play during the standardization process. The Procedures Committee, ProCom, looks at the procedures of all the other committees, including the Standards Board, to make sure they are effective and efficient. The Patent Committee, PatCom, oversees anything related to IEEE standards and associated patents. The Audit Committee, AudCom, is there to make sure everyone follows the rules. Hint: during the standardization process, if an issue arises that goes to one or more of these three committees, the standard will probably not be finished according to the original schedule.
The IEEE standardization process, while spanning many steps, has been in use for nearly 100 years and is being applied today to more than 1100 standards. It’s proven, effective, and well respected. Hint: if you’ve read this entire article, you should be proud. The IEEE standardization process isn’t for the faint of heart.
For definitive information about the IEEE standards process, visit the Standards Association’s Web page at http://standards.ieee.org.