Why the digital enterprise needs modular open standards

An abstract image of a man controlling various IT applications from a single control panel.
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

It would be hard to find many people in the world of technology who don’t appreciate the power of a standard. We live amongst diverse systems, following different design decisions, being used in endless different ways – often even within an organization, never mind across organizations. Standards, in this context, are what enables technology to do almost everything we expect it to do, whether that’s accurately pass a message from one machine to another or be comprehensible to a newly hired engineer.

About the author

Judy Cerenzia is VP of Forum Operations at The Open Group.

Beyond their immediate pragmatic functions, standards are also fantastic engines of innovation. They mean that a business can create and launch a new product, safe in the knowledge that customers will be able to integrate it with what they already have. At the same time, they can inspire new ideas: when an approach is clearly established and explained in a standard, it becomes easier to imagine what else might be achieved through that approach.

When standards stumble

Everyone, in short, loves standards – until, that is, they no longer meet our needs.

The Open Group has been in the business of establishing industry standards for over twenty-five years. Since 1995, when the Internet was only just becoming commercially used, we’ve been through the same changes as every other organization has over that quarter of a century. Our working groups have met in person, on group calls, and through video conferencing. Our members have collaborated via everything from whiteboards, to email, to shared online documents.

Along the way, we’ve relied on a lot of standards ourselves – some open, like email, and others less so. The challenge for a standard like email is that it can be challenging to keep it in line with the needs of the people who use it. We still need it, of course, to carry billions of messages a day, but for example, the original email transfer standard does not allow attachments. So, the industry created another standard that builds on the original to allow sending of attachments.

The result is that, over time, standards accumulate to fulfil the many new functions that we require. Since those early days of the Internet, this is a process which has been accelerating, with new tools, frameworks, platforms, and services emerging at an ever-growing rate as essential components of the digital enterprise.

What’s true of communications protocols is also the case for all kinds of standards. The Open Group, notably, was established in order to carry forward a common standard for implementing UNIX®, and since then has also created the world’s most widely used enterprise architecture methodology and framework, alongside open standards enabling everything from interoperable healthcare systems to the recording and processing of environmental footprint data.

This work is essential to many parts of the modern digital enterprise – and so to many parts of our daily lives. As those businesses merge their business and technical competencies into product-centric agile delivery teams, accelerating the progress they can make and the value they can deliver, they can no longer rely on a few standards to solve their issues. The ability to manage the pace of change in the constantly emerging tools and frameworks is an essential skill in remaining competitive. Given this competitive imperative, how can organizations best adopt and manage standards?

A modular future for standards

We know, however, that that different approach cannot involve a drift away from the principle of having standards and the value they provide. It’s well understood that a significant proportion of digital transformation projects end in failure, and the root cause of that often lies in the fact that, while empowering smaller teams to act more quickly in a digitally-native way, organizations fail to to change their business model, organization, management, and culture to ensure that those empowered teams can work together.

Standards development can help organizations make these business changes by changing the way that they operate. The inspiration for how to do this comes, naturally enough, from agile methodology itself. When the methodology is working well, many agile teams within an organization will produce modular components which add up to something much greater than the sum of its parts. Businesses today should be looking towards adopting standards which offer that same quality: modular, structured, composable parts which, when combined, create greater value, not conflict. The process used to produce those standards should be able to evolve as quickly as the underlying business and technology drivers. The process should also be designed to learn quickly from market feedback. If the standards cannot learn and evolve quickly, the standards will rapidly become irrelevant to the product teams seeking solutions to their problems.

A modular future for standards will be one where components can be continuously reviewed and more nimbly updated, keeping pace with the world around them.

While careful design and consensus will always be a part of standard development, standards processes must break the habit of producing large, monolithic standards that evolve slowly. To again borrow from the agile world, standards development must “allow work in small batches, ideally single-piece flow, getting fast and continual feedback on our work” . Put another way, large, slow-evolving standards are a form of technical debt for the standards industry.

Beyond the development process, we must consider the standards consumer. A modular future for standards will be one where standards-based solutions are easily to discover and navigate, regardless of which standard they belong to.

Ultimately, standards succeed when they allow people to quickly discover and adopt solutions to their business problems. In today’s fast-evolving environment, businesses will need standards that work how they work.

At TechRadar Pro, we've featured the best productivity tools.

Judy Cerenzia is VP of Forum Operations at The Open Group.