Arming the IEC for the future

Jim Matthews goes over his six years at the helm of SMB

By Jim Matthews

Over the past 6 years, IEC Vice-President and Standardization Management Board (SMB) Chair Jim Matthews served the IEC well. A calm, focused diplomat, he updated and helped put in place new structures and processes that will allow the IEC to satisfy market needs faster and even more efficiently. At the end of this year he will hand over to Ralph Sporer who has been elected at the General Meeting in Frankfurt.

This is how Jim remembers his time at the IEC; what he set out to do and what he accomplished.

Tribute to Jim Matthews in Frankfurt The SMB paid heartfelt tribute to Jim Matthews at the end of their meeting in Frankfurt

It has been a real pleasure to serve as the IEC Vice-President and SMB Chair from 2011 through the end of this year. I have had the opportunity to collaborate with people who are truly dedicated, hard-working, and enthusiastic about the IEC and its impact across the whole field of electrotechnology.

Structures for future relevance

All organizations, including the IEC, are faced with challenges every day from the markets they serve as well as from their internal stakeholders. How an organization reacts to those challenges determines its long-term success, viability, and relevance. During my mandate my main aim was to optimize the processes and structures and put in place the tools that would allow the IEC to become as fast and nimble as possible so as to allow it to remain relevant well into the future. I believe an organization has to react and if possible preempt change in order to remain relevant. If it fails to do so, it becomes rigid and over time obsolete.

Strategies for success

When I became IEC Vice-President in 2011, we were at the beginning of the implementation of an updated IEC Masterplan. The plan stressed the need to strengthen ties to industry and the markets we serve; to take into account new approaches to technologies and the complexity that resulted from rapidly occurring convergence. In this context we needed to examine IEC governance and find ways to enhance collaboration at the global level so as to make effective use of our experts.

Optimizing IEC structures

The experts that are appointed by the IEC National Committees to work in Technical Committees and Subcommittees (TC/SCs) are the heart of IEC standardization work. Many of our technical committees are high functioning, effective, and efficient. They serve the needs of their stakeholders well, adapting to market changes, bringing new people on board, initiating relevant projects, updating structures and processes as needed. We have tried to celebrate these groups and hold them up as examples. We tapped into their leadership and invited them to share their expertise on advisory or ad hoc groups. However, there were other groups that stopped being relevant because they didn’t adapt to the market and as a result their work no longer satisfied market needs.  LVDC

We knew we needed to put in place changes but we also had to be careful because we simply could not risk sacrificing the good with the bad.

For this reason, the SMB established five metrics of performance to assess the activity level of TCs and SCs. Any group that failed to meet any three of the five criteria was subjected to closer examination. This process resulted in the shutdown or merger of a number of committees that had no experts, no projects, or no meetings in the last five years. I can assure you, it is really hard to close down standards groups, but it is also hard to defend the continued existence of a TC that has not met since 1998.

Promoting speed and effectiveness  

Looking at how projects are managed and developed, we found that measuring “average time to publication” covered up a multitude of problems and opportunities for improvement. In the past progress in the development of International Standards was measured by fixed milestones within fixed time frames and intervals, regardless of size or complexity of the work at hand. Success was expressed by average time to publication. This approach didn’t take into account difficult situations or differing market needs.

Also, some projects took a long time because a group decided to write a single Standard with over 500 pages instead of a series of smaller, more easily maintained subsections. Other groups were working meeting to meeting, progressing slowly as they generally only met once every 12 to 18 months.

The SMB took a hard look at all the aspects of project management and saw many opportunities for improvement. Today, TC/SC Officers, Convenors, and Project Leaders are empowered to manage technical work in line with market needs. They are responsible for planning and advancing projects. With this we moved from a “one-size-fits-all” project timing metrics to holding TC leadership accountable to a plan they select and develop. To achieve this, we have provided them with training and new tools. This provides them with a new level of freedom but also a lot more responsibility.

Better quality work, earlier

In looking at how IEC publications are developed we also found that a lot of our scarce resources were spent late in the project, editing drafts to bring them to the quality level we were looking for. In an effort to increase the quality of drafts already at the Committee Draft (CD) stage, the SMB decided to bring project leaders in TCs much earlier in closer contact with IEC editing staff. Every TC now has access to the contact information for their editor and their Technical Officer on the IEC website. This will help reduce late corrections and increase quality and speed of publications. 

Saving additional time

During my mandate as SMB Chair we have managed to shorten the time span for a number of steps in the standardization process by a quarter of a year:  

  • New work item: 12 weeks, with the option of 4 week vote for outline only
  • CD: 8, 12, or 16 weeks, as deemed appropriate by TC/SC Officers
  • Translation: 6 weeks
  • Committee Draft for Vote (CDV): 12 weeks
  • Translation for Final Draft International Standard (FDIS): down to an optional 0 weeks, if the CDV is approved without technical changes; this is currently being discussed

All systems go

Perhaps the biggest change to occur in the IEC during my mandate was the introduction of systems activities. Recognizing that technical areas are both converging and becoming more complex, there are a number of domains where TCs cannot function in isolation. Many technology areas require interaction across several groups inside and outside of the IEC.

For this reason we created two layers of systems-related activities and new structures to allow new approaches, use cases, and high-level connections to emerge between existing groups. The Systems Evaluation Groups (SEGs) are a radically new idea for the IEC: participation in them is completely open, including to interested parties who traditionally were not involved in IEC work. An example in case was SEG 4, the SEG for low-voltage direct current (LVDC) which brought together several hundred new experts. This innovative approach allows us to move the IEC forward by connecting traditional methods with radical new ones.

The work of the Systems Committees (SyCs) is intended to bridge and complement the work of traditional IEC TCs. The aim is for both types of committees to collaborate by consensus without one dominating the other. To aid our thinking and approach to the systems level, we created the Systems Resource Group (SRG) to provide tools and best practices.

Encouraging the passing of the torch

By encouraging younger professionals to join the IEC and participate in IEC work through the IEC Young Professionals Programme, we soon noticed that succession to high-level positions in technical committees was often blocked. Many TC/SC Chairs had been in their position essentially for all their (professional) life. And while many remained open, dynamic and active leaders, some blocked all change or new ideas.  After extended discussions in the SMB and Council Board, it was agreed that we should phase in a term limit for a TC/SC Chair of no more than 9 years. This was probably one of the most controversial decisions I have been involved in as SMB Chair, but one I feel had the strongest positive impact on the IEC for the future. As a result of this decision, new leaders with new ideas and working approaches are now coming into TC/SC leadership. Long-serving individuals are continuing to contribute to their TCs in other ways, and TCs and SCs are now seriously engaged in succession planning.

Advancing Communication

As a management body, the SMB itself has also evolved. SMB members were constantly asking for an opportunity to have more discussions on some issues with strategic impact, but a one-day meeting with a packed agenda made that difficult. The SMB Chair had traditionally invited a few select members to discuss more contentious topics the day before the meeting as a Chair’s Advisory Group. To increase communication, I was able to institute a Chair’s Advisory Group that was open to all SMB members and alternates. As an informal meeting with no decision-making power, we found the freedom to more deeply discuss strategic issues in the level of depth and detail they deserved.

I would probably be remiss if I did not address my own fondness for the use of ad-hoc groups in the work of the SMB. They offer an opportunity outside of the meeting to thresh out potential solutions, identify the issues with those approaches, and then present a clear set of options to the management body for voting and decision. Ad-hoc groups allow for the development of a clear picture and the setting of clear deadlines. This approach has helped the SMB make better decisions.

Changing of the guard

My term as IEC Vice-President and Chair of the SMB is ending this year, and Dr Ralph Sporer of Germany has been elected to take office in January 2017. I hope that the IEC community will give Dr Sporer the same support, engagement, and dedication that I have had the privilege to enjoy over the past six years. And finally, I want to express my gratitude to the members and alternates of the IEC SMB, the IEC Central Office Staff (especially Jack Sheldon and Joyce Bleeker) for all their help and support.

Joyce Bleeker, Jim Matthews and Jack Sheldon (Minsk 2015) Jim Matthews (centre) with Jack Sheldon, IEC SMB Secretary (right), and Joyce Bleeker, SMB Executive Assistant, at the SMB meeting during the IEC General Meeting in Minsk, Belarus
Frans Vreeswijk and Jim Matthews With Frans Vreeswijk, IEC General Secretary and CEO, in Frankfurt, Germany, during the last SMB meeting chaired by Matthews
Tribute to Jim Matthews in Frankfurt The SMB paid heartfelt tribute to Jim Matthews at the end of their meeting in Frankfurt
Jim Matthews with wife and son His wife and son were present in the audience and joined him at the end of the SMB meeting.