In a Word: Standards (as an innovation accelerator)

Every time we plug a device into a wall, click on a webpage, send an e-mail, text a friend, post a photo on Instagram or just call Mom, we activate a vast array of routers, servers, databases, landlines, cell towers, telephone switches, undersea cables and consumer devices. Together with the software that automates and controls them, they comprise the largest integrated machine in the world.

How did this enormously complex system come into being? In a word: standards.

Standards ensure compatibility, reduce risk, encourage investment and enable innovation. In doing so, they advance human progress. As Vincent Cerf, the father of the Internet, reflects on the power of standards: “When I helped to develop the open standards that computers use to communicate with one another across the Net [TCP-IP], I hoped for but could not predict how it would blossom and how much human ingenuity it would unleash.”

Today we are in the midst of a massive new era of innovation in services, fueled by automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence. Standards are once again the key that will unlock development and hasten realization of the benefits these powerful technologies offer. The size of the opportunity is unquestioned – daily, weekly, monthly we see new capabilities and innovative services being developed by established companies and a host of startups. 

With new technologies bringing new functionality to IT-based services, market participants have been borrowing terms and concepts from related – and often unrelated – industries and markets, and in many cases inventing totally new terms to describe their products’ capabilities.

The result has been confusion and uncertainty for buyers, advisers and other developers who ask such questions as: “What exactly do you mean?” “What specifically does your product or service do?” “How can I be sure it’s right for my need?” and “How can other products interwork with it?”

Recognizing the need, a Working Group of buyers, technology developers, advisers, implementation experts, analysts, academic researchers and industry associations came together in late 2015 to begin discussing the need for standards in this new domain we call Intelligent Process Automation (IPA).

Under the leadership of Lee Coulter, CEO of Ascension Shared Services, its founding members include Ascension, Automation Anywhere, Blue Prism, ISG-One, The Institute for Robotic Process Automation, KPMG and Symphony Ventures. Adjunct advisory participants included HfS Research, as well as academic researchers from the London School of Economics and Ryerson University.

IAOP is actively partnering with and supporting the Working Group by providing critical outreach and market education platforms – at the 2016 EOS and 2017 OWS conferences, through its global chapter network, and now in PULSE.

Standards Awareness Grows

In deciding how best to proceed – whether to ‘go it alone’ by forming an independent entity or to seek sponsorship from a recognized standards authority – the Working Group approached IEEE, which describes itself as “the world’s largest technical professional organization dedicated to advancing technology for the benefit of humanity.” On Dec. 7, 2016, the IEEE Board of Governors Corporate Advisory Group (IEEE BOG CAG) voted to sponsor the standards project, recognizing its impact across multiple IEEE “societies” or communities of interest.

While the initial intention of the group was to establish a taxonomy, it became clear this would not be possible without a defined lexicon of concepts and nomenclature to provide a foundation for future efforts in taxonomy, operating models, and meta-languages and interoperability. The result is the IEEE “P2755: Guide for Terms and Concepts in Intelligent Process Automation,” with anticipated final approval and publication by the IEEE Standards Association (IEEE-SA) after its Standards Board meeting in June.

The P2755 Guide defines 57 initial terms and concepts identified as fundamental to Intelligent Process Automation (IPA) and is designed to be a living document, updated periodically as needed.

The next phase is to develop a standard for Technology Taxonomy and Classification. To this end, a new Project Approval Request has been submitted to the IEEE-SA for development of a “Taxonomy and Classification for Intelligent Process Automation Products.” This request is scheduled for IEEE review in mid-June.As awareness of the standards initiative has grown, more companies and individuals have expressed interest and are expected to join the effort. Working Group meetings are held periodically, either by conference call or in face-to-face settings (the latter usually in conjunction with key industry events).

As awareness of the standards initiative has grown, more companies and individuals have expressed interest and are expected to join the effort. Working Group meetings are held periodically, either by conference call or in face-to-face settings (the latter usually in conjunction with key industry events).

As these standards projects continue, they will bring much-needed clarity and wider understanding to this dynamic new field of technology – fostering product and service innovation, accelerating adoption and promoting better decision-making. It is quite likely that IT and procurement departments will begin to require conformance with these new standards to mitigate risk, strengthen purchasing confidence and ensure systems integrity.

As Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, has noted, “When it comes to professionalism, it makes sense to talk about being professional in IT. Standards are vital so that IT professionals can provide systems that last.”

It is truly an exciting time in this nascent industry. As enterprises increasingly “go digital,” they, their advisers and business partners will benefit hugely from the availability of industry-recognized standards to inform their technology architectures and product choices. Technology developers will benefit by being able to differentiate their capabilities within an accepted industry framework. Ultimately, as the market expands and flourishes, it is not too farfetched to expect the same “unleashing” of human ingenuity that resulted from the development of Internet standards.

How to Get Involved

The IPA standards projects are based on an IEEE ‘entity’ model, where the members are companies. There are two levels of participation: Observer and Voting. To be an Observer member, a Basic Corporate Membership is required. To be a Voting member, a company must have an Advanced Corporate Membership (For further information, see:

Multiple individuals from a Member entity can be involved in the project, but when a vote is required, each Member company gets a single vote.

For further information, please contact the following officers and support staff: Lee Coulter, Chair |; John Hindle, Vice-Chair | | Thomas Helfrich, Secretary,


By John Hindle, Ph.D., Knowledge Capital Partners Vice-Chair, IEEE Working Group for Standards in Intelligent Process Automation