“All Standards are Wrong”?

By Kees van den Brink, Senior Manager Platform Architect, ServiceNow.

This blog title is derived from the famous quote by George E.P. Box from his paper “Science and Statistics”: ”All models are wrong, but some are useful”

Box made this statement in relation to the use of statistical models by scientists, but I’ve found that it applies equally well to the use of open standards by Enterprise Architects and other digital practitioners.

Key take away from this blog:

  • Standards can be useful when you:
    • Learn and adopt from what makes sense
    • Reject what does not fit
  • Want to know more: Read “The Turning Point: A Novel about Agile Architects Building a Digital Foundation”

Frankly, standards can be very helpful and are necessary, like the TCP/IP standard, or even old standards such as the Baudot Code (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baudot_code), which helped early instances of what would later be called telecommunications companies grow fast, or the ISO Standards, which help with interoperability.

However, there are a lot of lesser-known standards that are not getting such broad adoption. Examples that come to mind are the IT4IT™ Standard, TOGAF® Standard, BIZBOK®, etc.

It is my opinion that these standards are of a very different nature. They are about advancing an understanding of something that came from industry experts who took the time to collaborate on documenting the learnings from their shared experience for all to use. However, in my work with clients, I frequently hear incorrect characterizations of these standards such as:

“These standards are presented like they are the law that everyone must follow”


“Only Enterprise Architects in an ivory tower would use these, they are otherwise useless to the rest of us”

In my view, believing that a standard is to be followed to the letter is the wrong approach. Instead, my approach is:

  1. Learn what you can from each standard.
  2. Apply only what is relevant to your situation; reject what does not fit.
  3. Adapt the models to the unique aspects of your organization.

Throughout my career, I have known these standards are out there and available for my reference. After taking the time to understand how they might be used, they have turned out to be more useful than I ever imagined.

In many challenging situations in my client engagements, I was able to find a way forward through understandings I gained from standards; not by believing a standard was a religion, not by following it to the letter, but instead by leveraging only the parts that I found applied to my needs, and then adapting that to accelerate my unique client engagement at that moment.

Before the pandemic, a group of us from different companies were chatting together at an industry event (remember those!?), and discoveredthat we all had similar experiences using standards to strengthen and accelerate our work. So, we – Stephanie, Sylvain, and myself – got together and wrote a book about it!

The Turning Point: A Novel about Agile Architects Building a Digital Foundation is centered around a team of architects – modeled after ourselves (check out the videos!) – who address some challenging issues (in scenarios that came from our own real-world experiences) related to a company merger. The story follows how the team came up with solutions with the help of a variety of industry open standards.

It was fun to write, and insightful to come to the realization that – some standards can be wrong and useful at the same time.

What has been your experience of using standards – prescriptive or adaptive? Please leave a note in the comments.

For Members of The Open Group only: Download a free PDF of The Turning Point novel here

For a limited time only, non-members can also download a free eBook from Van Haren Publishing using this Voucher Code: free-novel

hard copy       ePub         Amazon

Kees van den Brink

After being an officer in the Merchant Marines, Kees (www.linkedin.com/in/keesvandenbrink/) started his career in IT as a developer working on a team to maintain a network administration system. Over time, Kees has been a Sales Engineer, a Solution Architect, a Platform Architect, an Architecture Practice Lead, and an Engagement Lead. Currently, Kees works for ServiceNow and is managing a team of Platform Architects for the northern part of Europe. Throughout the larger part of his career, Kees has worked on solutions related to managing the different parts of the IT Department; for example, IT Project, Program & Portfolio Management, IT Service Management, and IT Operations Management.

Kees strongly believes IT should be regarded as a utility, just like electricity and water, enabling businesses to interact, optimize, and innovate. As a user/consumer of products with IT components, one should not have to be concerned with how IT is delivered, and instead be able to consume it according to choice. In Kees’ view, an important prerequisite is standardization in the way IT is delivered and fueled, for example, by cloud and containerization. This means a shift in focus from technologies or services to products and value streams and how they are used to help an organization on their digitalization journey. Kees is a strong believer, therefore, in initiatives that help to bring this high level of standardization to reality, like the IT4IT™ Standard, which he helped to establish and maintain.

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