Achieving Consensus Despite Apposing Stakes: A Case of National Input for an ISO Standard on Sustainable Wood

Achieving Consensus Despite Apposing Stakes: A Case of National Input for an ISO Standard on Sustainable Wood

Henk J. de Vries (Erasmus University, Delft, Netherlands), Beke Winter (Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, Netherlands) and Harmen Willemse (Netherlands Standaridzation Institute, Delft, Netherlands)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 19
DOI: 10.4018/IJSR.2017010103
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Decision-making in many standardization committees is consensus-based, but this can be difficult to achieve if stakeholders have conflicting interests. This article develops an approach to consensus-building in standardization by applying the Harvard method of negotiation to standardization. The authors apply this method in a single case study using action research. The case concerns the first meeting of a national standardization committee aimed at preparing national input for a new ISO standard on sustainable wood. Some stakeholders were in favor of a new standard, others opposed it strongly. Consensus was achieved during the first meeting by adopting the Harvard method and by adding a role play exercise. This outcome is promising for similar standardization cases. Both topic and research method are new in standardization research.
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Many standardization organizations prescribe consensus-based decision-making. Achieving consensus can be difficult, particularly if stakeholders’ interests differ substantially. Prominent papers about the process of standards-making lack attention to the art of reaching consensus (e.g., Backhouse, Hsu, & Silva, 2006; Dokko, Nigam, & Rosenkopf, 2012; Fransen & Kolk, 2007; Markus, Steinfield, & Wigand, 2006; Nickerson & zur Muehlen, 2006). Van den Ende, van de Kaa, den Uijl, and de Vries (2012) argue that in order to involve stakeholders with different interests, the standard’s contents may need modifications, otherwise the standard may not be acceptable to them. Mallard (2000) describes the process of writing standards in more detail, but does not focus on achieving consensus. Ewald (1996) shows the subtle role of power in standardization – via language, objectification, relativization, stakeholder representation, and the rules and practices of a standards body. It typically lacks a transcendent reference and a presumption of equality that are characteristic for democracy. Therefore, consensus-building in standardization differs from the political form of consensus. Taking the example of environmental standards, Mayntz (1990) describes the challenge of achieving consensus among participants with conflicting stakes. However, in her paper, the standardization committee is a black box. Jakobs, Procter, and Williams (2001) open the black box, examine the functioning of working groups in charge of making standards, and give insights in how participants with different backgrounds (e.g., producers and users) develop standards. However, they do not explicitly address consensus. Van de Kaa and de Bruijn (2015) suggest that achieving consensus may be stimulated by the perspective of future or enduring gains, voting rules, a sense of urgency, and an incentive to compromise. However, their empirical data on IEEE 802.11 fail to underpin this. In the IEEE procedures, majority voting provides an escape if consensus cannot be achieved. Our paper develops an approach to consensus-building based on negotiation theory and explores its feasibility in a case study.

Standardization organizations that subscribe to the World Trade Organization’s principles should establish consensus procedures that seek to consider the views of all parties concerned and to reconcile any conflicting arguments (World Trade Organization, 2014, p. 124). Normally, these procedures only prescribe that decision-making in committees is consensus-based and often this is followed by voting on the draft standard. But how can consensus be achieved in cases of conflicting interests? Here, hardly any guidance is available. The problem of opposing stakes is core to negotiation theory. We apply the Harvard method (Fisher & Ury, 1983) to standardization. Their method of ‘principled negotiation’ to find acceptable solutions by determining which needs are fixed and which are flexible for negotiators seems to be well-applicable to standardization. We have chosen not to review other literature on negotiation theory, but rather apply the Harvard method to standardization immediately and then use this in the form of action research in an empirical case to explore the feasibility of this approach.

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