How are Standards Developed?


When you get a new tablet, laptop, or smart speaker, one of the first things you do is connect it to your home Wi-Fi network. When you get a new pair of Bluetooth earbuds, you immediately pair it with your smartphone or tablet.

After that, you probably never think about those connections again. Instead, you’re free to focus on the messages, music, videos, calls, and other content flowing over those connections. That’s all possible thanks to technology standards such as IEEE 802, which provide a framework that enables devices from different manufacturers to communicate with one another. Standards provide highly detailed information such as how devices identify one another, how data flows between them, and how those communications are kept secure.

In fact, nearly every aspect of how you live, work, and play relies on hundreds of technology standards. So how are standards made?

What is a Standards Development Organization?

As the name implies, a standards development organization (SDO) creates, publishes, updates, and maintains standards. Some SDOs are focused on a single industry, such as health care or automotive, while others provide standards used by multiple industries.

The IEEE Standards Association (SA) is a global SDO. IEEE provides hardware manufacturers, software developers, service providers, and other businesses with the time-tested platforms, rules, governance, methodologies, and facilitation services they need to transform a concept into an industry standard. Each year, the IEEE SA publishes more than 100 standards.

The IEEE standards development process includes Boards, Committees, and professional staff who establish and maintain the policies, procedures, and guidelines that help ensure the integrity of the standards development process. Once a new standard is finalized, IEEE SA also provides a framework for distributing it and continually updating it to meet evolving marketplace conditions and opportunities.

The IEEE SA even provides a style guide. This helps ensure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to understanding how a standard is implemented. For example, when writing the standard, “shall” should be used to describe a mandatory requirement, while “should” indicates a recommendation. It’s like the difference between a sign with a speed limit and one that suggests a safe speed as you head into a sharp turn.

How Are Standards Made?

IEEE SA Standards Development Lifecycle
The IEEE SA Standards Development Lifecycle

At IEEE SA, the development of technical standards can be broken down into six main stages:

  • Initiating the project
  • Mobilizing the Working Group
  • Drafting the standard
  • Balloting the standard
  • Gaining final approval
  • Maintaining the standard

The development process typically starts with a concept, which can be broad or very specific. This concept is turned into a formal request from a Standards Committee, which can be a business or an industry society. The IEEE SA Entity Collaborative Activities Governance Board can be a Standards Committee, too.

The IEEE SA oversees and helps facilitate the process for developing that standard, while the Standards Committee is responsible for organizing the development team and coordinating its activities. Once IEEE SA approves the request, the Standards Committee creates a Working Group of individuals or entities who represent businesses, non-profits, trade associations, regulatory agencies, and other organizations. The common denominator is that all of these organizations share a vision of why the world will be a better place with this standard, to the point that they’re willing to provide expert staff on a volunteer basis.

More than 500 Working Groups are active at any given time. That highlights the breadth and depth of innovation that IEEE standards enable. Years and even decades later, Working Group members can take pride in knowing they had a hand in creating a standard that’s changed how people live, work, and play. Imagine how different the world would be without Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, for example.

IEEE SA also has rules to ensure that a single member organization doesn’t dominate a Working Group. These guidelines help build consensus through democratic means, including meetings, votes, presentations, and discussions to resolve issues.

Building a Consensus in Approval of Standards

All of this results in a draft standard, which then goes into a balloting process that takes 30 to 60 days. The Standards Committee creates a balloting group, whose members vote whether to approve the standard.

Guidelines ensure an open and transparent process here, too. For example, anyone can contribute comments, even if they’re not a balloting group member or an IEEE SA member. The ballot resolution group responds to all comments, Also, balloters have representatives for multiple interest categories, such as manufacturers and end users. No interest category can comprise over one-third of the balloting group.

The goal is to achieve the greatest consensus. A standard passes if at least 75 percent of all ballots from a balloting group are returned and if 75 percent of these bear a “yes” vote. If 30 percent of ballots are abstentions, the ballot fails.

Next, the Working Group submits the standard to the IEEE SA Review Committee (RevCom), followed by the Standards Board for final approval. After submission, review, and acceptance, the approved standard is published and made available for distribution and purchase

Updating and Evolving Standards to Stay Relevant

Standards are “living documents” that typically are clarified, modified, and updated based on feedback, market conditions, and other factors. Each SDO sets its own timeline. For the IEEE SA, a standard is valid for 10 years. After that, the standard is withdrawn or moved to inactive-reserved status.

Besides refining and updating the standard, the Working Group also may spend that decade creating handbooks, tutorials, and other related materials. These help interested parties better understand and apply the standard.

If you’d like to learn more about how IEEE standards are developed and updated, check out the following links:

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