The power and peril of common standards


Knowledge and standards in project-work


Advances in Project Management


By Prof Darren Dalcher

Director, National Centre for Project Management
Lancaster University Management School
United Kingdom

Standards have played a key part in enabling progress via two main avenues: contributions to knowledge, through the sharing of documentation and insights; and, contributions to practice, through the development of new approaches, structures and ways of working. However, standards can also introduce limitations and constraints on creativity, potential solutions and ways of thinking. This article explores the role and impact of standards generally, and in relation to project thinking and practice, offering a potential new lens for project discourse.

Nuts and bolts precision

We all strive for perfection, often seeking to employ high standards of performance and behaviour. The term standard came into use in English, following the Battle of the Standard in 1138, and is largely associated with taking or building a stand, or a position (Busch, 2011: 18). Since then it has reflected a range of concept, with dictionary definitions encompassing concepts such as level of quality, rule, measure, model or norm. Standards can be viewed as repeatable, harmonised, agreed and documented ways of doing something (IRENA, 2021), implying that they act as a record of the consensus reached and a repository of the best knowledge accumulated around making a product, managing a process, delivering a service or supplying materials (ISO, 2021). The British Standards Institute (BSI, 2021) posits that standards represent the ‘distilled wisdom of people with expertise in their subject matter, duly concluding that ‘standards are knowledge’.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO, 2021) defines standards as ‘documents that have been developed through a consensus of experts from many countries and are published by globally recognised bodies.’ ISO therefore suggest thinking about standards as ‘a formula that describes the best way of doing something’ (ibid.). Standards typically comprise rules, guidelines, processes or characteristics that are meant to allow users to achieve the same outcome repeatedly. Lampland and Star (2008) intimate that their fundamental purpose is to streamline procedures, regulate behaviours and predict results. Standards became particularly important with the arrival of the industrial revolution and the overriding need for high precision machine tools with clearly defined specifications and precisely crafted interchangeable parts, reflecting a growing preoccupation and interest in measurement and perfection (Deane, 1979; Dalcher, 2017; Winchester, 2018).

British inventor and machine tool designer and innovator, Henry Maudslay, considered the founding father of machine tool technology, developed the very first industrially recognised standard, for practical screw-cutting lathe in 1800 (Benson, 1901; Cantrell & Cookson, 2002; Evans, 1994; Gilbert, 1971; Waller, 2016; Winchester, 2018). Maudslay’s work, often associated with precision engineering and perfection (Waller, 2016; Winchester, 2018) and high standards of craftsmanship (Dalcher, 2015), was thus ideally placed for setting and establishing new standards. Maudslay’s contribution allowed the standardisation of screw thread sizes for the first time, thereby enabling the concept of interchangeable parts to be widely applied to nuts and bolts (Skrabeck, 2015). The standard removed the need for manual chipping and filling, encouraging greater precision, uniformity and reduced costs, whilst speeding up production.

Joseph Whitworth, an established inventor and philanthropist, subsequently devised the British Standard Whitworth (BSW) System, an imperial-unit-based standard which was later released as a British Standard. The BSW System became the first national screw thread standard and was widely adopted internationally, enabling international collaboration, global trading, purchasing and procurement through the sharing of knowledge and expertise. Maudslay’s pioneering standard, which facilitated mass production on a global scale, has since been followed by a plethora of standards, and a host of national, sectoral and international bodies, associations, organisations and initiatives seeking to collate, formulate, formalise, document, own, disseminate and share codified knowledge and skills related to their areas of interest and advocacy.


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Editor’s note: The PMWJ Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of program and project management books published by Routledge publishers.  Each month an introduction to the current article is provided by series editor Prof Darren Dalcher, who is also the editor of the Routledge Advances in Project Management series of books on new and emerging concepts in PM.  Prof Dalcher’s article is an introduction to the invited paper this month in the PMWJ. 

How to cite this paper: Dalcher, D. (2021). The power and peril of common standards: Knowledge and standards in project-work, Advances in Project Management Series, PM World Journal, Volume X, Issue XI, November. Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/pmwj111-Nov2021-Dalcher-the-power-and-peril-of-common-standards.pdf

About the Author

Darren Dalcher, PhD

Author, Professor, Series Editor
Director, National Centre for Project Management
Lancaster University Management School, UK


Darren Dalcher, Ph.D., HonFAPM, FRSA, FBCS, CITP, FCMI, SMIEEE, SFHEA, MINCOSE is Professor in Strategic Project Management at Lancaster University, and founder and Director of the National Centre for Project Management (NCPM) in the UK.  He has been named by the Association for Project Management (APM) as one of the top 10 “movers and shapers” in project management and was voted Project Magazine’s “Academic of the Year” for his contribution in “integrating and weaving academic work with practice”. Following industrial and consultancy experience in managing IT projects, Professor Dalcher gained his PhD in Software Engineering from King’s College, University of London.

Professor Dalcher has written over 300 papers and book chapters on project management and software engineering. He is Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Software: Evolution and Process, a leading international software engineering journal. He is the editor of the book series, Advances in Project Management, published by Routledge and of the companion series Fundamentals of Project Management.  Heavily involved in a variety of research projects and subjects, Professor Dalcher has built a reputation as leader and innovator in the areas of practice-based education and reflection in project management. He works with many major industrial and commercial organisations and government bodies.

Darren is an Honorary Fellow of the APM, a Chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society, a Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute, and the Royal Society of Arts, a Senior Member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a Member of the Project Management Institute (PMI), the British Academy of Management and the International Council on Systems Engineering. He is a Chartered IT Practitioner. He sits on numerous senior research and professional boards, including The PMI Academic Insight Team, the CMI Academic Council and the APM Group Ethics and Standards Governance Board as well as the British Library Management Book of the Year Panel.  He is the Academic Advisor, author and co-Editor of the highly influential 7th edition of the APM Body of Knowledge. Prof Dalcher is an academic advisor for the PM World Journal. He can be contacted at d.dalcher@lancaster.ac.uk.

To view other works by Prof Darren Dalcher, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/darren-dalcher/