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An Argument against Standards

February 22, 2012

Pitt and Napoleon carve up the world.  Cartoon from 1805.It’s hard to criticize global metadata standards without sounding like a jerk.  They mean that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time we find ourselves in need of a new schema or vocabulary.  They allow for portability of data and interoperability of systems. Someday, they might just transform the interwebs into a completely synchronized knowledge repository in which no translation between domains and locales is required.  (Yeah, that last one seems like kind of a long shot these days.)

All great things, to be sure.  But think back: can you remember the last time you used a standard?  In certain areas, to be fair, odds are good that you’ve rubbed shoulders with a global standard recently (libraries, research laboratories, the public sector).  But if you’re in industry, you may be managing proprietary metadata (a “standard” of a sort) in back-end legacy systems which aren’t indexed by agents outside the corporate firewall.  Or you’re trying to create a novel experience for your customers, perhaps allowing their consensus to shape a “standard”.

So “standards” are unarguably useful, but they are often highly particular.  There’s little incentive for a company to make information about its customer base portable if that information isn’t going to be shared.  And while aligning idiosyncratic internal systems to methodical global standards may be the “correct” thing to do, it can be a woefully costly effort, expending time and money perhaps better spent on other projects, as well as expending the good will of metadata consumers who don’t take kindly to change for change’s sake.

Even the most straightforward standardization can wreak havoc with internal systems.  Geography seems like it should be beyond dispute, except that geographies are subject to political disputation all the time.  More urgent than that: the enterprise’s view of the world is typically oriented to the market in preference to politics.  Because different industries and corporate entities exploit different markets, they are prone to each carving up the world differently.  Sometimes different divisions within the same company will deploy different geographies.  Recently at work I came across an example of two different geographies pertaining to support partners: one describing the partner companies, the other describing the employees of those companies.

This is messy stuff, and the fantasy of wishing upon a global standard and making it all go away is an alluring one.  But counter-standards will continue to exist despite our best efforts at rationalization, because they serve a purpose.  The best thing we can do is make an effort to understand the underlying intent, then make recommendations for improving the experience of managing and consuming metadata which continue to support it.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Susan permalink
    February 23, 2012 2:11 am

    As they say, “the nice thing about standards is there are so many of them to choose from!”

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