KANBrief 3/20

A standardization strategy for the skilled crafts sector

The need for suitable standards is undisputed in the skilled crafts sector of an economy based on the division of labour. However, notwithstanding the advantages, the skilled crafts sector also considers some developments in standardization to be problematic. In its position paper on the skilled crafts and standardization (pdf, german) published in May 2020, Germany’s National Federation of Skilled Crafts and Trades (ZDH) advocates for standardization to be reoriented to the needs of SMEs.

With the professions that it covers, numbering over 130, the skilled crafts sector is an ubiquitous presence in civil society and the economy, be it as part of value-added chains in industry, or in the direct delivery of products and services to private consumers and the public sector. The skilled crafts produce and process innumerable preliminary, intermediate and end products from a huge range of materials. Standards are to be observed or applied almost everywhere.

Problematic developments in standardization

Despite all the advantages that standardization and standards offer, including for small and medium-sized skilled craft enterprises, the skilled crafts sector also has issues with some developments in standardization.

Besides the growth in the sheer number of standards, marked expansion can be observed in horizontal standards. One effect of these standards is to increase the effort of finding a suitable standard considerably and to impair transparency, since the relevance to the user’s actual technical subject area is often not clearly apparent. In the past, stakeholders were often insufficiently informed of and involved in the development of the standards, if at all. This also led to some degree of duplication of topics and content between different standards, and also between standards and technical codes and directives.

At the same time, industry still bemoans gaps in technical standardization at European level. This is particularly the case in new technologies such as digitalization and artificial intelligence, and also in the construction sector, where much-needed standardization is not making the desired progress.

In addition, the comprehensibility and readability of standards has generally declined. Standards have become more complex and longer, and are not infrequently difficult to understand, even for experts.

The skilled crafts sector views standards as having the task of depicting recognized good practice and adopting innovative developments. Areas can be observed however in which the progress of research is used excessively as the point of reference. Suitability for practical application – very much a crucial aspect – then takes a back seat.

A further worrying development is regulation through DIN SPECs. This involves attempts to conduct standardization activity without involvement of the stakeholders, which is normally a given. This clears the way for the interests of a particular lobby to be asserted successfully. This in turn endangers not only quality, but also the reputation of the entire standardization process.

Above all, standardization is now often losing its link to the situation on the ground. Although a high level of participation by SMEs in standardization is needed whilst a standard is still at the development stage to ensure its subsequent applicability in practice, the actual level of involvement by SMEs is low, owing to a dearth of human and financial resources.

Finally, there is a tendency for standardization to be exploited by lobbies or (globally active) corporations in the pursuit of their strategic goals. Lawmakers also occasionally attempt to shift issues covered by the state’s regulatory function to the sphere of standardization. In addition, the EU sees standardization above all as an instrument to strengthen the Single Market and apply uniform rules to it; this may also be at the expense of German quality requirements.

Greater consideration for SMEs

Against this background, monitoring the standardization process and the associated work has become extremely time-consuming. Most small and medium-sized enterprises in the skilled crafts sector lack the resources to do this. The same applies to their lobby in the form of their associations.

A response to these topical challenges in standardization must be found if the results of standardization are to continue to meet with wide acceptance in the future. This is crucial for a functioning system of standardization. We have formulated concrete proposals for solutions, which we have summed up in our position paper on the skilled crafts and standardization and which form the basis for a comprehensive standardization strategy. The ZDH’s standardization strategy also includes awareness on the part of the skilled crafts sector of its role in standardization, and its willingness to become more involved in it.

Holger Schwannecke
Secretary General of the German Confederation of Skilled Crafts and Trades