What exactly do we mean by open standards?
While I’m a huge fan of technology, I’m not in the least bit technical so I’m borrowing the explanation that provided my lightbulb moment
Have you ever heard of the BS1363 specification? I hadn’t either, but I will guarantee that you know exactly what it is and what it does. It’s the common standard for a 13-amp, 3-pin British mains plug socket. It’s one of those things we never think about and not many of us will ever have had the need to read the specification, but it would be difficult to imagine life without it.
Can you imagine what our houses and cable drawers would look like if every electricity company, homebuilder, electrician, and supplier of mains appliances were persuading us to use their special, proprietary and different socket designs? Having a standard plug and socket design for all houses and appliances just makes perfectly logical sense and makes our lives a little bit simpler.
There are lots of these open standards and frameworks that we don’t really read about or ever need to delve into despite how essential they are. They include the TCP/IP internet protocols which organise our internet content and functionality, HTTP which loads our web pages, and HTML which gives us graphics and fonts.
One agreed standard
The basis of an open standard is that it’s freely available for anyone to use and is managed by organisations, collaboration groups, or trade associations which are vendor and commercial model agnostic.
The standards may evolve, and in fact they have to evolve to adapt and stay relevant, but it does so without favouring one vendor or any commercial model over another. For the internet as we know it, this means manufacturers, internet service providers, or search engine companies can safely make investments in contributing to and using the standard because the whole ecosystem is based on it.
The standards benefit everyone and make possible the kind of industry-wide transformation we take for granted when we use the internet and mean we don’t need to build our own versions of the data and technology principles they’re based on.
Of course, sometimes we need legislation, competition authorities, or political influence to push things through and to make sure we have governance of standards, but many of the open standards we didn’t even know we loved or needed are based on plain old collaboration, community, and best practice making them the unsung heroes of the modern world.
How do we solve a problem called interoperability?
How many industry events, round tables, blogs, podcasts, and articles have you seen over the last few years talking about collaboration, or the lack of it?
It’s just been too hard. There are too many disparate parts to the industry. Unassailable differences between the way everyone wants to work. So many legacy platforms. The need to protect competitive advantage. Reliance on existing commercial and operating models. Regulation to implement. Other priorities to focus on. This is the way we’ve always done it. It’s not broken enough. Not enough customer demand. A crisis to deal with. Too much volume. Not enough volume, and on, and on, and on.
Breaking through these barriers so we can work together and create common infrastructure like those boring 13-amp 3-pin plug standards is crucial in finding a way through these challenges and addressing that interoperability obstacle. Real transformation and changing the way a whole industry works can only be achieved when there is interoperability and that’s a problem that needs to be solved.
A real life example of this in practice is one of the first changes we had to make during Covid. We couldn’t see clients face-to-face and posting identity documents generally isn’t a good idea so pretty much everyone moved to video calls and electronic ID checks.
It was great. We all updated our risk and compliance manuals and found an ID service provider that met our requirements. It was remarkable how quickly we responded and found a solution. But we only solved our own piece of the jigsaw, and we didn’t start or end with an interoperability picture, because every other part of the industry involved in the transaction still had to do their version of an identity check too.
If we’d started with a picture of what good interoperability looked like and collaborated on the standards, data, and reliance we needed (the jigsaw pieces) to be able to exchange identity information in a safe, trustable, and standardised way across the whole industry, we would have come up with a very different solution. Our customers would have had a much simpler and slicker experience and we wouldn’t have replicated the same process thousands of times across every lender, intermediary and conveyancer.