The companies that are involved connect the work they do in the standards organisations to their core businesses. JP Morgan Chase and Fidelity Investments are concerned about the speed of online transactions and the quality of products presented to customers over the Internet. Kaiser Permanente cares about the movement of online health-care transactions standards known as HL7 from EDI to a Web services model. For GM, the issue is the OnStar communications network it's building into its cars and trucks.
But the link between Web services standards and business goes even deeper for these companies. The sooner they know where the standards are going, the sooner they can begin shaping their architecture to take advantage of Web services faster than their competitors can.
"We take these public standards and add in our own standards and pass that down into the organisation," says Adrian Kunzle, who is cohead of the architecture group at JP Morgan Chase's investment banking division. "Our participation in standards groups comes from the fact that we're up front about creating an architecture strategy for our organisation. We want to understand where they are going early so we can plan."
Of course, the commitment required to participate in the development of technical standards is considerable. These efforts can go on for years. "On a topic you're interested in, it's easily a couple of hours a week," says Bill Stangel, enterprise architect for Fidelity. He says Fidelity has a dozen or so staffers involved part-time with various technical committees in standards organisations. Other companies have similar stories: part-time participation of anywhere from six to 10 staffers. Not a bad investment, they say, considering the insight it gives them.
"Without awareness of what's going on with standards, it's game over," says Tony Scott, CTO for GM, which is actively involved in Liberty Alliance. "That awareness allows my organisation to provide guidance to the wider IT organisation inside GM about where they should be placing investment. What's emerging, what's changing, what's obsolete."
For companies that cannot afford to get involved directly, Scott recommends they try to exert influence with their vendors. "We have a lot of clout, obviously," says Scott. "We actively engage the R&D community in areas that we think are important. If we start asking a lot of questions about a particular technology or standard, they get the message."
Finally, say these technology executives, it's important to vote for standards and interoperability with your chequebook. "The theme of interoperability is not going to go away," says Kaiser Permanente's Watson, saying he wouldn't buy a product if it "complicated the interoperability issue".
Standards are inextricably linked to the future of business through the Internet. That they are floundering today means business will flounder tomorrow.
"Standards are the basis of competition going forward," says GM's Scott. "It's not just your ability to make and sell that matters anymore. We used to have a 48-month product development cycle; now we're down to 18 months, and we're trying to get to a year. When you have that kind of rapid change, you have to have architectures and standards and interoperability. If you can set the standard or drive the standard, that enables you to get to market faster and have a broader market than might have ever been the case prior to today. Think of standards as an accelerator to your business."
But you can't affect those standards if you don't get involved, says Kaiser Permanente's Watson. "If you need what this standards activity is producing and you choose not to play at some level," he says, "then you can't complain about the product you receive."
Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.