This is ISO – a chaotic organisation

Human organisations that are created and develop based on a master plan discover that the world is more complicated than assumed by the master plan they started from. Sooner or later they must flexibly adapt the plan to the conditions on the field. Other human organisations start without a master plan and develop on the basis of actual conditions. Sooner or later they discover that the organisation has a dysfunctional structure that must be rationalised.

I was not in Geneva in 1947 when ISO was established, but I am pretty sure that there was no master plan for creating standardisation areas. This can be easily seen from the way Technical Committees (TC) were established, i.e. on an as needed basis.

TC 1: Screw threads, TC 2: Fasteners, TC 3: Limits and fits, TC 4: Rolling bearings, TC 5: Ferrous metal pipes and metallic fittings, TC 6 Paper, board and pulps, TC: 7 Rivets, TC 8: Ships and marine technology

Indeed, after responding to the needs of “Ferrous metal pipes and metallic fittings”, ISO created a TC for “Paper, board and pulps”. After addressing rivets, ISO responded to the needs of “Ships and marine technology”.

I believe this was the right things to do. You may attempt to create a rational picture of the industry (good luck!). Even if you succeed to develop one, a few years later the evolution of technology will make the picture obsolete.

ISO disbanded TC 3: Limits and fits and TC: 7 Rivets because they were no longer needed. Good that rivets were still in need of standards in 1941 or Jane would have had a problem.

In ISO as well as in the market, new TCs/companies are born and die. But there are also mergers and acquisitions, and spin offs. TC 97 Data Processing is a good example of this:

  1. Formed in 1960 with ANSI as secretariat and originally responsible for computers, peripherals, and computer systems.
  2. In 1981 TC 97 absorbed TC 95 Office Equipment.
  3. In 1983 SC 8, Numerical Control of Machines, and SC 9, Programming Languages for Numerical Control were spun off to create TC 184, Industrial Automation Systems.
  4. In 1984, TC 97 was reorganised to group similar activities with 3 Vice-Chairpersons coordinating the activities of groups of SCs with similar interests.
  5. In 1987 TC 97 merged with IEC/TC 83 Information technology equipment (and later IEC/SC 47 B Microprocessor systems) and became the Joint ISO/IEC Technical Committee on Information Technology (JTC 1).

From that moment on JTC 1 witnessed an impressive organic growth. Today JTC 1 includes 22 Subcommittees (SCs) and many Advisory Groups and Working Groups reporting directly to it.

The JTC 1 SCs cover a broad range of areas. Here are some examples: Character Sets, Telecommunication, Software and System Engineering, Security Devices, Digitally Recorded Media, Office Equipment, Digital Media, Security, IT for learning, Biometrics, User Interfaces, Cloud Computing, Internet of Things, Artificial intelligence etc.

Is this situation OK? I do not think it is, because JTC 1 is no longer a TC in charge of an area, it is a collection of many disconnected areas which do not have an obvious reason to stay together. Today JTC 1 does not even attempt to group areas as it commendably did in 1984 but then discontinued.

Let me give examples: What is the relationship of digitally recorded media with artificial intelligence? What is the relationship of IT for learning with internet of things? What is the relationship of software and system engineering with digital media?

In JTC 1 there is a mix of basic information technologies (e.g. Software and systems engineering, Programming languages), devices (e.g. Cards and security devices, Digitally Recorded Media), communication (e.g. information exchange between systems, interconnection of IT equipment), applications (e.g. IT for learning, biometrics) and many other areas without any thread connecting them.

There is another issue, and an even more serious one, because it affects the governance. Out of the 22962 standards produced by ISO, JTC 1 has produced 3249 standards, i.e. ~14% of all ISO standards. JTC 1 is the dominating TC in terms of standards produced (by the way, more than 500, i.e. ~16%, were produced by MPEG), but the actual membership in JTC 1 entities (SCs, AGs and WGs) accounts for probably 30% of the entire membership in ISO entities (TCs, SCs, AGs and WGs). ~80% of patent declarations received by ISO relate to JTC 1 standards (and ~71% of those declarations relate to MPEG standards).

Still JTC 1 has the same governance as TC 291 Domestic gas cooking appliances that has produced no standards so far.

I have already expressed my opinion about ISO governance in TCs and SCs.

JTC 1 Subcommittees as of June 2020

  • SC 2    Coded character sets
  • SC 6    Telecommunications and information exchange between systems
  • SC 7    Software and systems engineering
  • SC 17  Cards and security devices for personal identification
  • SC 22  Programming languages, their environments and system software interfaces
  • SC 23  Digitally Recorded Media for Information Interchange and Storage
  • SC 24  Computer graphics, image processing and environmental data representation
  • SC 25  Interconnection of information technology equipment
  • SC 27  IT Security techniques
  • SC 28  Office equipment
  • SC 29  Coding of audio, picture, multimedia and hypermedia information
  • SC 31  Automatic identification and data capture techniques
  • SC 32  Data management and interchange
  • SC 34  Document description and processing languages
  • SC 35  User interfaces
  • SC 36  Information technology for learning, education and training
  • SC 37  Biometrics
  • SC 38  Cloud Computing and Distributed Platforms
  • SC 39  Sustainability for and by Information Technology
  • SC 40  IT Service Management and IT Governance
  • SC 41  Internet of Things and related technologies
  • SC 42  Artificial intelligence

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