Newsline, September 2018

Letter from the Executive Director

Standards development is inherently a social effort.  In working toward a consensus, discussions include focus on technology, of course, but also business processes and how people interact. Of all the problems that I have seen in standards development and in information distribution technology, the thorniest hang-ups have not been technical issues.  They have been social concerns: of business decisions or relationships. Most of the time, overcoming these barriers to consensus or adoption involves not technical solutions, but social agreement on moving beyond them.

Over the past few months, I have been conducting a series of meetings with NISO members at their offices. These meetings provide opportunities for me to explain NISO and our work to a number of people at the member organization beyond the one or two representatives who engage directly with NISO, either via balloting or participating on a NISO working group. Often there are many people in the production, product development, marketing, or IT departments of a NISO member who are working on things related to NISO’s activities, but who haven’t been involved with NISO’s work or our programs. In part, these meetings are relationship-building opportunities for NISO and our working groups. An equally important element is the opportunity to hear from NISO members about the concerns and issues they are facing.  Such concerns, in my experience, are often similar across a variety of organizations. Hearing several times of a problem across different institutions is a sign that there could be an opportunity to improve an industry-wide process or practice, and the potential for a new working group or standards project to address that issue. I have found that these free-form conversations are quite valuable in considering new initiatives and patterns for growth. Each meeting with a NISO member organization may have a stated agenda or areas of concern identified for discussion, but there has also been room for us to talk about the broader themes of engagement and problem-solving in a way that may lead to something bigger and more expansive than the simple act of describing NISO projects.

In a larger sense, our current business environment seems to provide little room for these conversations, and much of the structure of our typical interactions tends to limit opportunities to have them.  Much of NISO’s work is accomplished virtually via teleconferences, webinars, and virtual interactions. These tools have had a tremendous impact on our ability to get work done more quickly and to engage a more diverse group in our efforts.  The strict limits of time and space have rapidly diminished, even in just the past 12 years that I have been at NISO, and more significantly in the decades prior to that. But even as new tools and technology expand flexibility in arranging to meet as a group, they cause us to lose something as well.  There have been many times over the years I have been at NISO when I have met someone at a conference, only to realize moments later that the two of us have spoken regularly for years on some group or committee, but have never met in person. Being in a room together, seeing people’s reactions, or being able to have a conversation in the hall, kitchen, or at the lunch table between working sessions is extremely important. Because of a lack of visual clues or time delays in transmission, telephone or broadcast technology can create barriers or distractions. Sometimes there is also a less free level of engagement, because many people are less comfortable interacting on phones or video conferences.  Although physical rooms are often dominated by one or two people, virtual rooms have the same issue but multiplied.

NISO won’t be shifting to a focus on in-person events for every working group or educational event.  The economics, size, and scale of our work simply precludes going back to the days where every meeting needed to be face-to-face because there wasn’t another option.  We have too many groups, and stakeholders are too diverse, to make every group or meeting happen in the same location. Physical meetings can also be exclusionary because not everyone has the resources to attend those individual meetings.  However, we should consider ways that these one-on-one interactions can be encouraged, as they play an important role in facilitating the collaborative work that we do. I have the good fortune of being able to engage directly with our members and volunteers on a regular basis. I’d like to find a way to engage our participants more directly and personally from time to time, because I do see it as valuable.

Some of the new ideas offered in these meetings, I hope, will filter up to the standards leadership committees in the form of new work items.  Several of these ideas from past and (potentially) future meetings I will write about here and, where appropriate, share more broadly in the information community in the hopes that we will see greater engagement to address these issues. Finally, I hope that these meetings will expand the relationships and foster connections between NISO and the staff of its member companies, because it is these bonds that build the NISO community and make our work more relevant.

If you would like to arrange a meeting for your organizational staff to discuss technology, standards, or improving your business processes, please do let me know.  I am happy to discuss NISO, our work, our plans, or—more importantly—your work as well as your plans and concerns and how NISO can support you in solving those issues.  Send me a note and I would be happy to find a time to arrange a visit. I look forward to seeing you all soon!

With kindest regards,

Todd Carpenter
Executive Director, NISO