“Standardization” reminds some people of bureaucracy and control – things that limit our freedom. But all kinds of things are standardized without us ever thinking about it, and standardization also gives us the freedom to make better choices. Once we get used to standardization in any particular area, we quickly take it for granted and forget about how things worked (or didn’t work) before standards were agreed. Consider just a few examples:
- Without the U.S.’s “Generally Accepted Accounting Principles” (GAAP) and the international financial reporting standards (IFRS) used by about 120 other countries, it would be impossible for investors to compare two companies – let alone entire industries and markets.
- Prior to 1800, there were no standardized screw threads. Nuts and bolts from different manufacturers were not interchangeable. If you were a machine builder during the industrial revolution and wanted better quality or cheaper screws than what your current supplier offered, choosing a new supplier could entail redoing all of your designs.
- Back in the early 1980s when mobile phones first came into use but before the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) was adapted, globetrotters needed to pack different phones for Europe, North America, and Japan.
- Until Apple finally joined other major manufacturers and adopted USB-C for all of its devices, users had to deal with an everchanging spaghetti bowl of cables just to charge a phone. Oops – we’re getting ahead of ourselves here…
Standardization comes in many shapes, forms and types – and for lots of different reasons. To mention just a few:
What gets standardized can include terminology, personnel training and qualifications, approaches and processes, technologies, metrics, and more.
Application or industry-specific standards exist for all kinds of things. In addition to the mobile telephony standards mentioned above, such specific standards apply to everything from monetary to measurement units, batteries to building codes, screw threads to fabric threads.
The scopes of standards can be personal, group, companywide, industrywide, national, or global.
The groups pushing standards also vary. Some standards, like the screw threads mentioned above are de facto – they exist because enough people think they make sense, not because of any law. We have both open standards (Linux) and proprietary standards (MS Windows, Apple). Other standards, like those for mobile phones, are voluntarily organized by industry associations, professional groups or even dedicated, transnational standard makers such as ISO. Still others, like building codes and car emissions, are de jura – mandatory standards set by law to which everyone must comply.
The benefits of standardization include interoperabilitywhich ensures that things and systems work with each other. Interoperability enables better competition, allowing customers to choose between alternatives that do the same things, albeit each in their own way. Now, if a machine maker gets tired of his screw supplier, he can simply find an alternative because screw threads have become interoperable. Process standardization, which sets up rules that determine how we complete tasks, has other benefits. Establishing and following standard operating procedures (SOPs) has many benefits for individual organizations and across entire industries, including improved quality control and productivity, more predictable outcomes, better business continuity, and shorter learning curves.
If standardization is so good, why isn’t the executive protection industry already doing it?
We think it’s fair to say that the executive protection industry is not standardized in any way.
Every EP school creates their own curriculum and teaches it in their own way. Every provider has their own proprietary take on organizing and delivering their own version of protective services, and their own system (or no system) for quality control. Every executive protection client trying to decide on a provider has to compare apples and oranges, and make a decision based on a messy fruit basket of criteria rather than a standardized selection menu.
Why is this the case? Mostly, we believe, because standardization would require a coordinated effort that no one until now has thought worth the trouble. We can only speculate, but it would seem that none of executive protection’s stakeholder constituencies, on their own, have so far made standardization a priority:
- Regulators: The executive protection industry is too small and impacts too few to attract the attention of most regulators, so we have (so far) flown under the radar as far as mandatory, de jura standardization is concerned. The UK and a few other countries have created more stringent certification and licensing regimes, but the world’s largest EP market, the U.S., has not.
- Corporate clients: We know for a fact that some CSOs and EP directors do want more standardization, as it would help them choose and manage suppliers. But these are voices in the wilderness, not a choir. Although the costs of some of executive protection services do mean that corporate procurement departments get involved in RFP processes, even our most comprehensive programs represent too small a share of corporate expenses to justify bringing out the big guns to pressure suppliers to standardize. This is likely to change as our industry grows but will take a long time.
- Training schools: Unlike grade schools, universities, and even nail technician schools, no one is setting standards for executive protection training schools. Anyone is free to hang up their shingle and start offering classes. Everyone is free to do it however they choose. Who would you rather have doing your root canal – a board-certified dentist or someone who prints their dental degree on their own Epson?
- Providers: We have standardized quite a few things in our own shop, and we know that other EP providers have, too. This includes operational SOPs, of course, the bread and butter of our protective services. But it also comprises things like quality control, admin services, and RFP responses. Like our competitors/colleagues in the industry, however, we do this on our own, not in collaboration with other providers. To be sure, we believe many of the standardizations that we have created over the years are proprietary and giving them away to competitors would be like handing out recipes for our secret sauce. On the other hand, improved standardization would professionalize the industry and level the playing field for all competitors. We could still spice things up with our own sauce. That’s a chance that we are more than willing to take. We think many of our colleagues in the industry feel the same way.
Better standardization would solve a range of problems for executive protection stakeholders – and the wrong kind of standardization would create new problems
We believe the biggest problem related to no standardization in our industry is that it’s hard for many stakeholders to know what’s good and bad executive protection and make qualified decisions.
This is due to the nature of what we do, in part. If nothing happens to the principal, and, thankfully, nothing usually does, does that mean the EP team is top-notch? Maybe. It might also just mean that nothing happened, i.e., the team has not been tested. This also has to do with the fragmented nature of our industry and how easy it is to set up shop – what the MBAs refer to as “low barriers of entry.”
As we’ve written many times before, ours is truly a niche industry. If you don’t know your way around in it and have the hands-on experience that enables you to discern quality protective service from security showmanship, you’re not going to be able to tell the good stuff from the not so good stuff.
Standardization would help here. If done right, it would provide more objective ways to measure the quality of protective services. If providers and purchasers could agree on objective quality criteria, this would encourage all providers to become more competitive to meet these criteria. This, in turn, would drive innovation throughout the executive protection industry, as providers try to find new and better ways to improve quality and productivity and reduce costs – and still provide clients the same proven degree of service.
More agreement on how to write and respond to RFPs would increase transparency in the procurement process and make us all better. Like our competitors, we would still lose some RFPs, but we would also win some. And all of us – purchasers and competing providers – would have a clearer idea of why we won or lost – and what we would need to improve to win the next one.
Of course, you can also standardize mediocrity. If we create the wrong kinds of standards or create standards that are so poor that they don’t matter, we’re not helping anyone. Let’s not do that.
So, where do we go from here?
We don’t have all the answers regarding standardization of the executive protection industry. We’re not even sure that we have all the questions. But we are pretty sure that if we continue to do things as we have in the past, nothing will change in the future. And we do need to change.
We believe standardization should be voluntary, not mandated by law. At least, that’s where we should start. For one thing, we can’t wait around for 50 different states in the U.S. – not to mention all the other countries where we do business – to come up with meaningful regulations. For another, they would not likely come up with the same things, and we’d have another mess to deal with. Finally, we’re not convinced any legislators know enough about EP to pass sensible legislation on our niche industry at all, and that a lot of what they might eventually come up with would be heavily influenced by the lobbyists with the biggest budgets. Sorry, we’re just going to have to do this ourselves.
If efforts to standardize the EP industry are to be voluntary, then the first thing we need to do is gather a coalition of the willing. This would involve representatives of the key stakeholder constituencies we mentioned above (schools, corporate clients, and providers) in a process designed to come up with what should be standardized and how to do it.
The good news is, we already have the IPSB, an excellent coalition of the willing if ever there was one, with some great representatives of all the necessary stakeholders. If a team from the IPSB can get the ball rolling, it could then work with the ISO 9001 folks to develop criteria and standards for quality management, all of which typically involve top management, are dedicated to continual improvement, and have a strong customer focus.
Other industries have done it, and so can we. Who is willing?