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Best Practices

International Standards and their Impact on Technical Communication and Content Management

Ralph E. Robinson
Senior Member, Toronto Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication

International Standards are becoming a fact of life in the world of business today. Conceivably, businesses in North America are required to meet quality standards as spelled out in ISO 9001, environmental standards as spelled out in ISO 14001, health and safety standards as spelled out in OHSAS 18001, regulatory standards like Sarbanes-Oxley and 21 CFR Part 11 as well as many other standards specific to the industry in which they operate, such as FAA, SAE, W3C. This article discusses the need for standards and their and impact on business; who is responsible for their development and how they are developed; how they will impact technical communication and technical communicators world-wide; and why technical communicators need to become involved in their development.

The need for standards

Standards are becoming a fact of life in the world today and impact many different areas of our businesses. There are standards established by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), such as ISO 9001, ISO 14001 that govern quality and environmental practices, regulatory standards established by government acts such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, industry-specific standards such as the SAE standards for the automotive industry and many others, as well as sector-specific standards such as those established by the W3C for the world wide web.

These standards provide the basis upon which organizations structure their processes and provide assurance to their customers that the resultant products will meet some predefined and accepted criteria. With so much of today's business being global in scope, these standards make it easier for companies to deal with others regardless of their location in the world. Imagine the cost and difficulty for an American company to audit the operations of a supplier in Germany or Japan to ensure that their processes will consistently yield the level of product quality they require. Failing that, a rigorous and expensive inspection routine would be required at the American point of use.

The existence of the ISO 9001 Quality Management System standard makes it far easier for American companies to deal with companies half way around the world when they are registered to this quality standard. You know how their companies operate and what processes they have in place to ensure the quality of their products. You also know that processes are in place to ensure prompt and effective actions if below standard products are released into the market. All this without you leaving your office!

Developing international standards

The development of international standards is a long process built on worldwide consensus within the affected industries/disciplines. Each country that is a signatory to ISO has a national standards organization that maintains an advisory group that provides inputs into the standards drafting process. These advisory groups are made up of representatives from the specific business area that the standards are being developed for. These groups hold meetings with, seek inputs from, consult with respected members of their national business communities, and draft suggestions and recommendations to their respective national standards body. The national bodies then table their positions at meetings of all ISO signatory nations and through consensus these drafts evolve into a draft standard. The draft standard is submitted to members of the various advisory bodies for vote and when the majority of the voting bodies agree on the standards' contents, it is released through ISO as an international standard.

Once in place, the national standards body for each country will determine if the standard is voluntary or regulatory in nature. If standards are mandated as regulatory, they become standards that all in that industry must follow. A good example of this type is the standard for the manufacture and recording of music CD ROMs. Every country abides by the same rules so that a music CD purchased in Romania can be played on a CD player made in Japan and sold in Calgary, Alberta. Voluntary standards such as ISO 9001 or ISO 14001 are ones that organizations and/or industries can choose to adopt if they wish. In the case of these two, many nations have adopted them as their national standards for quality management and environmental management.

International standards and technical communicators

Currently there are efforts underway to develop standards for software and systems engineering, covering a wide range of activities such as Tools and Environment, Documentation, Evaluation and Metrics, Life Cycle Management, Integral Life Cycle Processes, Software Integrity, Process Assessment, Data Definition, Functional Size Measurement, and Software Measurement. This group is officially known as ISO/IEC/JTC1/SC7 or Joint Technical Committee 1, Subcommittee 7 of the joint International Organization for Standardization and International Electrotechnical Commission standards bodies. Canada participates in this activity through the Standards Council of Canada, which manages the National Standards Systems for the country, and its various subcommittees are comprised of numerous Working Groups that provide this valuable industry representation. Working Group 2 assists with developing a "Canadian position" on potential standards for documentation within the discipline of Software and Systems Engineering. Members of this Working Group as well as other interested parties funnel comments and suggestions through its "prime" or delegate who develops the formal recommendation to the Secretariat of SC 7 in Canada. The Canadian Secretariat then tables the "Canadian position" at formal ISO meetings. Each country has a working group that represents their country's position; the positions of all the countries for a standard are amalgamated to form an international standard. For communicators, decisions being made concerning documentation will have a direct impact on how we structure our documentation, from user guides and reference manuals to software packaging. In fact, even the documentation relating to software development will be subject to some formal standards.

These future standards will impact both the structures that documentation will take as well as the content that it will contain. Every aspect of how we communicate with the users of the product will have specific requirements to meet. This will assist us in developing usable documentation in formats that our user communities will accept, it will ensure that software is developed using standardized methods and processes, and, hopefully, it will ensure that the information required for documentation will be available to those of us developing it. These future standards work well with a content management environment, which, by its nature, advocates standards for the creation, use, reuse, and storage of content. In a content management environment consistency is key and standards, once defined, can be supported-even enforced-by the structure defined in a DTD or schema and by processes, such as workflow, that dictate how content flows through the content life cycle.

Why we should get involved

Technical communicators need to be involved in the development of these standards for the same reason that we even exist - to be the user's advocate. We are the experts on what is needed, what formats work, and how documentation should interrelate with the applications and the users. The involvement of technical experts in individual fields of endeavor is the foundation upon which international standards development takes place. By gathering the knowledge from experts around the world the drafters of international standards ensure that the resulting standards will be acceptable and usable by the practitioners in their field. Who better to assist in the drafting of international standards for documentation than technical communicators? Who better to represent the user community than those of us who have been supporting users in the organizations we work for? And, who better to take the standards and implement them in a content management strategy? Working Group 2 is fortunate to have active representation from technical communicators in Canada, the United States, Australia, Japan and Britain but more input from people re-presenting a greater range of expertise is always welcome.


International standards are now a fact of life, and their growth in the future is assured. There will be international standards at some time in the future governing software and systems engineering, and these will have a significant impact on how we work. Technical communicators need to get involved in the development of these standards to ensure the standards are practical, usable, and address the needs of their users. If there are going to be rules to follow, then we need to be involved in their establishment, and in their implementation!

Copyright 2005, The Rockley Group, Inc.