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The Standards Bearers

Aug. 19, 2013
The people who volunteer their time to develop and refine the electrical industry’s product data standards are a special breed, like a family, and they’re always looking to expand the clan.
The electrical industry’s rolling cache of structured product data, the Industry Data Warehouse (IDW), is a monumental piece of work that’s been built and expanded over more than a decade. The underlying logic of the system, and of the tools for exchanging its data among supply chain partners and turning it into e-commerce transactions, is defined by standards developed and refined down to the most granular level by a diverse mob of volunteers who donate their time and energy on behalf of their companies and the industry as a whole.

The Industry Data Exchange Association (IDEA), based in Arlington, Va., a joint project of the electrical industry’s primary manufacturer and distributor associations — the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) and the National Association of Electrical Distributors (NAED) — is the organization charged with smoothing and organizing the flow of product data throughout the electrical supply chain. In a way, it sits at the industry’s busiest intersection, directing traffic.

It’s IDEA’s Industry Standards Committee (ISC) that paints the stripes on the road, tunes the timing of the lights and fields suggestions and honks and hand signals from the industry’s drivers about how the flow could be improved. At the center of this bustle is Mary Shaw, known to members of IDEA as the chief cat and squirrel herder, or alternatively as IDEA’s director of e-business standards.

It’s Shaw’s job to keep everything moving, make sure the committee and subcommittee and ad hoc committee meetings happen, that the decisions get decided and draft standards get drafted for consideration by the ISC as a whole. It’s a demanding position, but it seems to suit her.

“Time is a challenge, but it’s one I’m up to,” Shaw says. “It’s the way I am. Around Christmastime, when I’m with my family, I’m constantly doing things, and they ask, ‘Do you ever sit still?’ No. There’s too much to do. I’m on the go all the time. I like to be challenged. I hate to be bored.”

Shaw has been involved in electrical industry data standards since the days when NEMA oversaw standards for electronic data interchange (EDI) and established the Product Descriptor Database, which became the IDW when IDEA was created. Now, in addition to the IDEA standards meetings, Shaw represents IDEA and the electrical industry on international data standards committees including GS1, which sets global standards for supply chain interactions (where she is part of five different committees), the American National Standards Institute’s (ANSI) X12 committee for global EDI and XML standards, and others. Shaw’s experience sitting in countless standards committee meetings gives her a perspective on how ISC meetings are different.

Technical, engineering standards developed elsewhere in the industry by NEMA, ANSI, ISO, NFPA and the numerous other standards-setting organizations tend to be more contentious. Each manufacturer comes to the table with its own technologies and product lines at stake. If the standard develops using a competitor’s technology it could mean instant obsolescence for existing products and extensive redesigns to comply the new standard. There’s a serious competitive advantage in getting your company’s technology written into the standard.

When it comes to data standards, on the other hand, maybe you need to make sure your product number formats and preferred units of measure are supported by the database. But ultimately it’s all about making information flow smoothly for the benefit of all the industry’s manufacturers and distributors and, by extension, independent reps and end users, and all the various information systems they use.

“When they sit down, the competitive cloaks come off and we’re all there for the same purpose,” Shaw says. “It’s all volunteers, manufacturers and distributors, and the structure is to bring people together. They bring their needs to the table and say, ‘Here’s an issue, let’s address it.’ It’s openly discussed. We take a look at the manufacturer side, the distributor side, the roadblocks get discussed and sorted out, and everything is consensus-based. We don’t’ take someone’s specific, proprietary need unless it benefits the whole channel.”

So, who are these people who make the standards? If you ask them what makes someone devote a substantial amount of time outside their regular jobs to the unpaid labor of sitting in committee meetings with their suppliers or distributors, as well as their competitors and their competitors’ suppliers or distributors, hashing out details like whether A/C should be the abbreviation for air conditioning and AC the abbreviation for alternating current, or the other way around, you’ll get strangely consistent responses. “It’s like a family.”

But it’s a family that’s open to newcomers and outsiders. “The more people who get involved, the more we can move ahead as an industry. It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes an industry to raise a standard,” says Lorraine Mott, project leader in e-commerce for Cooper Crouse-Hinds, which is now part of Eaton Corp.

Mott has been active with IDEA for 10 to 12 years, and now chairs the ISC’s Data Content & Quality subcommittee. In her role at Crouse-Hinds, Mott has global responsibility for the company’s  data and vendor-managed inventory (VMI) programs, making sure its product data is synchronized with the IDW and working with the company’s process-improvement teams to lock down the processes through which product data flows. Her time spent on standards comes outside those responsibilities, including four to five face-to-face meetings a year, plus a constant stream of teleconferences and e-mail exchanges. The experience is demanding, but it leads to better understanding of the needs and motivations of people in other parts of the electrical industry.

“Believe it or not, we’re not there ripping each other’s hair out, we’re not punching or kicking each other,” Mott says. “We have great discussions, and a lot of times it’s enlightening to hear the other side. I’m the manufacturer, and here’s the data I have available. The distributor says, ‘That’s great, but here’s what I need and why.’ The lightbulb goes off and you say whoa, now I understand.”

The same value flows to the distributor side as well. Distributors get a deeper understanding of the manufacturers’ point of view, says Wendy Felderman, corporate product database manager for Crescent Electric Supply, East Dubuque, Ill. Felderman sits on three ISC subcommittees and has been active with the standards group for about five years.

One tangential benefit of having the whole industry take part in developing the standards is that along the way the varying terms people use become more widely understood, Felderman says. “We’ve set up a great base of communications, and it helps us standardizing our terms. In pricing, one manufacturer may call it ‘list’ pricing while another calls it ‘publist.’ When we start using the same lingo, it makes it much easier for us to communicate with one another. So if you pick from the bucket called “list” for any manufacturer in the IDW, you know what you’re getting.”

This improved communication comes with a deeper understanding of what everyone else in the industry is doing and how they’re doing it. “What I find interesting is knowing what’s going on behind the scenes – knowing people in similar position you’re in at one of your competitors and on the vendor side. You get a bird’s-eye view. It’s exciting to be on the committee because you get to help standardize the industry and help it grow,” Felderman says.

That family feeling is a deliberate emphasis for Shaw. ISC meetings always include a group dinner so the individuals can get to know newcomers and catch up with their growing circle of old friends. It’s a circle that all involved hope to keep growing so more of the electrical industry has a stake in making product data easier to handle for all involved.