The cost of standards: the cases of digital skills and electronic invoicing

By Fabio Massimo, SBS expert. 

The idea of “standard” has accompanied man since the birth of the first civilizations.

Writing systems, the measurement of time, space and weight had required the creation and sharing of standardized systems to be used within and among different communities.

With the first industrial revolution, the use of size uniformity standard allowed the rapid global spread of industrial production and its products; later, quality standards were developed to define product characteristics and identity the definition, safety criteria, performance, etc.

In recent decades, with the growth of the services industry alongside manufacturing, the need for standards to ensure the definition, quality and levels of the supply of services has increased. Finally, as services are provided by people, standards on people’s competences that describe the skills and knowledge of workers have been added latterly.

The evolution of standards from machines to people has also changed their social impact.

If, previously, only large industries in the manufacturing and construction areas were interested in standards, now they directly concern the world of workers and professionals even as far as the end users.

Standards have become players in everyday social life and affect all of us.

Some groups of standards, such as those published by ETSI can be downloaded freely but the users have to pay royalties: other standards, published by CEN and by the National Standardization Bodies, are not even available for free.

Some standards are funded directly by the members of National Standards Bodies and others are developed with financial support of Public Authorities or of the European Commission.

A recent example is the ongoing work of CEN TC 434 to define a standard for the electronic invoice for European Public Administration. (PA)

This activity is funded by the EC and aimed at defining criteria valid for all countries to invoice the national public administrations.

This way, companies could work in any European country and send their invoices with a single, “standard” format. Such a development is expected, in a short time, to open the way to B2B invoice meaning that companies will be able to interchange invoices with a single format throughout Europe.

This standard could have an impact on all companies across Europe; we are talking of a rule that could affect tens of millions of companies, mainly micro and small ones!

Indeed, a similar issue was also raised last September in Milan , during the general meeting of CEN TC 428.

This Technical Committee published the EN 16234, “A common European Framework for ICT Professionals in all industry sectors”, in 2016.

The EN 16234 has transformed into a European standard the eCF, e_Competence Framework, which is the first framework developed in Europe, with the financial support of the European Commission, to standardize the definition and use of skills, knowledge and professional competences in the area of Information Technology.

EN 16234 can be used within big industry, SMEs, academia, schools, public administrations and so on, also in this case millions of potential users are involved.

The access, distribution, and use of eCF 3 has been free and open for long time; everybody was able to download the eCF from a public website, but now, eCF is an European standard, it is subject to the general rules of CEN, and is therefore no longer free of charge.

It was observed that the eCF has been developed with public funds and that the users were used to using the eCF without having to pay royalties; in particular, the case of students and individual professionals who were used to and wanted to use the new standard for their CVs and promotion and who are not able to pay to access the standard was highlighted.

The social value and the impact of this standard are incontrovertible. Should e-invoicing and e-competence standards be available for free?

On the other hand, the publication and sale of standards is one of the pillars of the business model of National Standardization Bodies, and of CEN and ETSI themselves. The revenues cannot be eliminated without impact on their economic viability, especially at a difficult economic time.

The topic is, therefore, complex and delicate and it is very understandable that the European Standard System is not inclined to discuss a model that has been built over decades and has, until now, worked well.

At the same time, rules of such a social importance, and also funded with public money, raise the question of whether fees should be required to use them.

If a standard is developed with public support and it has an impact on the market so broad as to involve tens or hundreds of millions of players, should it be available for free?

The passage of the standards from the industrial world to SMEs and labour market to impacting end users is changing the size of the standardization market itself and also the relationship between standards, authorities, users and standardization bodies.

Could a solution be found?

We can hope that, in the near future, these developments will urge European Commission, regulatory Entities, and Standardization Bodies to reassess the standardization model and their use.