International Organization for Standardization (ISO): Bringing Quality, Safety, and Efficiency to Global Trade

International Organization for Standardization (ISO): Bringing Quality, Safety, and Efficiency to Global Trade

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International Organization for Standardization, What is ISO, History of ISO, Purpose of ISO Formation, Structure of ISO, ISO Standards Development Process, Key ISO Standards, Benefits of Using ISO Standards, Myths and Misconceptions Regarding ISO, How Companies Get ISO Certified

Introduction to ISO

ISO, which stands for the International Organization for Standardization, is a worldwide federation of national standards bodies that helps develop proprietary, industrial, and commercial standards. These standards ensure that products and services are safe, reliable, and of adequate quality. For businesses, implementing ISO standards signals to customers and stakeholders that they adhere to the highest benchmarks of quality and operational efficiency.

With over 23,000 international standards covering everything from technology to food safety, ISO plays a critical role in facilitating world trade by providing common frameworks and harmonizing specifications. In this article, we will explore the origins of ISO, organization structure, standards development process, key standards, the far-reaching benefits of its standards, common misconceptions about ISO, and what it takes for companies to become ISO certified.

The Origin and Evolution of ISO

Brief History

The seeds of ISO were first planted in 1926 when delegates from 25 countries decided to create an international standardization organization. This organization came to be known as the International Federation of the National Standardizing Associations (ISA) which was founded in New York City in 1928.

In 1942 delegates from the Allied nations of World War II met in London and decided to form a new international organization focused on facilitating the coordination of industrial standards. This new body was called the United Nations Standards Coordinating Committee (UNSCC).

After World War II ended, UNSCC was reorganized and officially renamed ISO in 1947. The organization was also relocated to Geneva, Switzerland where it remains headquartered today. Over the decades, ISO has continued expanding its influence by developing thousands of global standards and welcoming new member bodies. Today it has published over 24,000 international standards and has 169 national standards bodies as members.

The Purpose Behind its Formation

The founding purpose behind ISO was to develop a common set of standards that could be used consistently around the world. This would help break down technical barriers to trade and provide universal specifications for products and services.

Some of the key aims behind the establishment of ISO included:

  • Make international standards that can be implemented uniformly across diverse contexts
  • Ensure quality, safety, efficiency, and effectiveness via standardization
  • Facilitate international exchange of goods and services
  • Develop cooperation in intellectual, scientific, technological, and economic domains
  • Promote mutual understanding between nations by standardizing terminology
  • Streamline specifications, codes, procedures, and guidelines across borders

By providing a shared foundation of technical and quality benchmarks, ISO standards have played a pivotal role in globalization and Removing trade barriers between countries. They continue to harmonize specifications across diverse geographical and cultural contexts today.

Organizational Structure of ISO

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is a non-governmental international standard-setting body that develops and publishes international standards. Its organizational structure is designed to facilitate its mission of creating standards that meet the needs and challenges of the global marketplace.

General Assembly (GA)

  • This is the supreme decision-making body of ISO. It meets once a year and is composed of delegates from ISO member bodies and corresponds to the general meeting of other organizations.


  • Functions as the board of directors for ISO, overseeing the organization’s overall policy, strategy, and other important matters.
  • Comprises representatives of the member bodies.

Technical Management Board (TMB)

  • Responsible for managing the technical work, including the appointment of technical committees and the directive for how standards are developed.

Technical Committees (TCs), Subcommittees (SCs), and Working Groups (WGs)

  • TCs are responsible for specific areas of standardization (e.g., TC 176 is responsible for quality management).
  • SCs work on more specific areas under the purview of a TC.
  • WGs handle very specific tasks, often working on drafting a particular standard under the direction of a TC or SC.

Central Secretariat

  • Located in Geneva, Switzerland.
  • Manages the daily operations of ISO and provides administrative support to the organization.

President’s Committee

  • Advises the President on various matters and provides strategic guidance.

Member Bodies

  • These are the national standardization bodies (like ANSI in the USA, BSI in the UK, DIN in Germany, etc.) from various countries. Only one member body per country is allowed.
  • They actively participate in the technical work and contribute to the development of standards.

Correspondent Members and Subscriber Members

  • Correspondent Members: Countries without their own standardization body but wish to stay informed about ISO’s work.
  • Subscriber Members: Countries with very small economies that pay reduced membership fees and have a more passive role in ISO.

Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Treasurer

  • Oversee the financial and operational aspects of the organization, respectively.

ISO Standards Development Process

The development of ISO standards follows a systematic process to ensure the quality, relevance, and effectiveness of the standards. This process promotes consensus and ensures that the needs of global stakeholders are addressed. Here’s an overview of the ISO standards development process:

Proposal Stage

  • Initiation: A need for a new international standard is identified. This can come from an industry sector, a stakeholder group, or a member body.
  • New Work Item Proposal (NWIP): The identified need is submitted as a NWIP. The proposal includes a justification for why the standard is needed and what its scope will be.
  • Vote: ISO members vote on the proposal. If approved, the work is assigned to an existing Technical Committee (TC) or a new one may be created.

Preparatory Stage

  • Working Group (WG) Formation: A WG is established to draft the standard. The group comprises experts from the countries involved.
  • Drafting: The WG prepares a working draft of the standard.

Committee Stage

  • Committee Draft (CD): The draft is circulated to members of the relevant TC or Subcommittee (SC) for review and comment.
  • Feedback Incorporation: The WG reviews feedback, makes necessary changes, and may produce multiple versions of the CD.

Enquiry Stage

  • Draft International Standard (DIS): Once the committee reaches a consensus on the CD, it becomes a DIS.
  • Vote: The DIS is circulated to all ISO member bodies for a vote and comment. Approval requires a two-thirds majority of those voting and no more than a quarter of negative votes.

Approval Stage

  • Final Draft International Standard (FDIS): Taking into account the feedback on the DIS, the document is revised if necessary and then circulated as an FDIS.
  • Final Vote: ISO members vote on the FDIS. If approved (using the same voting criteria as the DIS), it moves to the next stage.

Publication Stage

  • International Standard (IS): The approved FDIS is published as an official ISO International Standard. It is communicated to stakeholders globally.

Review Stage

  • ISO standards are reviewed at regular intervals (usually every 5 years) to ensure they remain current. They can be confirmed, revised, amended, or withdrawn based on this review.

Key ISO Standards

Some of the major standards published by ISO are:

ISO 9000 Quality Management

The ISO 9000 family provides frameworks and guidelines to implement quality management in organizations. First published in 1987, it is ISO’s most widely used standard.

Key standards include:

  • ISO 9001 – Sets requirements for a quality management system
  • ISO 9000 – Defines terms and fundamentals of quality management
  • ISO 9004 – Provides guidelines to achieve sustained success

These help organizations improve consistency, customer satisfaction, and overall performance. Over 1 million companies are ISO 9001 certified.

ISO 14000 Environmental Management

First published in 1996, the ISO 14000 standards provide practical tools and systems to manage environmental responsibilities. They help organizations minimize harmful impacts on the environment caused by their operations and continuously improve their environmental performance.

Key standards include:

  • ISO 14001 – Specifies requirements for an environmental management system
  • ISO 14015 – Provides guidelines for environmental assessment of sites and organizations
  • ISO 14064 – Provides guidance and requirements related to greenhouse gas accounting and verification

ISO 31000 Risk Management

ISO 31000 provides principles, guidelines, and processes for managing risk faced by organizations. First published in 2009, it provides a standardized approach to identifying, assessing, evaluating, and treating risks.

Key benefits include consistent terminology for risk management, improved corporate governance, increased confidence in decision-making, and a better basis for performance evaluation.

ISO 26000 Social Responsibility

ISO 26000 provides guidance on managing responsibilities towards society and the environment in a sustainable way. First published in 2010, it sets out an international consensus on what social responsibility means and how organizations can integrate it into their values and practices.

It covers human rights, labor practices, environment, fair operating practices, consumer issues, and community involvement & development.

ISO 27001 Information Security Management

The ISO/IEC 27000 family provides requirements, guidelines, and best practices for initiating, implementing, and improving information security management within an organization.

ISO 27001 is the most widely known standard from this family and provides requirements for information security management systems. It also provides a risk-driven approach to determining adequate security controls within an organization.

Benefits of Using ISO Standards

Using ISO standards (International Organization for Standardization) can offer a variety of benefits across different sectors and industries. Here are some key advantages of using ISO standards:

  • Global Recognition: ISO standards are internationally recognized and accepted, which means that products, services, and processes conforming to these standards are likely to be accepted in global markets.
  • Improved Quality: ISO standards often provide guidelines for quality management systems, helping organizations ensure consistent quality in their products, services, and processes.
  • Enhanced Efficiency: Implementing ISO standards can lead to improved efficiency and effectiveness in various business operations, reducing waste and optimizing resource usage.
  • Risk Management: ISO standards can assist organizations in identifying and managing risks by providing structured frameworks for risk assessment and mitigation.
  • Customer Satisfaction: Conforming to ISO standards can lead to increased customer satisfaction as it demonstrates a commitment to delivering products and services that meet or exceed customer expectations.
  • Access to Markets: Many markets and industries require compliance with specific ISO standards as a prerequisite for entry, giving compliant organizations access to a broader range of opportunities.
  • Innovation: ISO standards often encourage organizations to stay updated with the latest industry practices and technologies, fostering a culture of continuous improvement and innovation.
  • Legal and Regulatory Compliance: Adhering to ISO standards can help organizations meet legal and regulatory requirements, reducing the risk of non-compliance and associated penalties.
  • Interoperability: ISO standards provide a common language and framework, promoting interoperability between different systems, products, and services.
  • Environmental Sustainability: ISO standards include environmental management standards that guide organizations in reducing their environmental impact and promoting sustainability.
  • Employee Engagement: Implementing ISO standards can lead to improved employee engagement by providing clear guidelines, processes, and roles, leading to a more organized and efficient work environment.
  • Cost Savings: By streamlining processes, reducing errors, and optimizing resource allocation, ISO standards can lead to cost savings over time.
  • Supplier Relationships: ISO standards can improve relationships with suppliers and partners by setting clear expectations and standards for quality, communication, and collaboration.
  • Data Security: ISO standards cover information security management systems, helping organizations protect sensitive data and mitigate cybersecurity risks.
  • Continuous Improvement: ISO standards emphasize the importance of ongoing assessment and improvement, which can lead to better overall performance and competitiveness.

Myths and Misconceptions Surrounding ISO

ISO, which stands for the International Organization for Standardization, is responsible for establishing and publishing international standards across various industries. While ISO standards have been adopted globally and have become critical in facilitating international trade and ensuring quality, several myths and misconceptions surround them. Let’s debunk some of these:

Myth: ISO Certification means a product or service is of high quality.

Reality: ISO certification indicates that a company follows a particular standard’s procedures. It does not directly certify the quality of the product or service. However, using ISO standards can indirectly enhance quality by ensuring consistency and continuous improvement.

Myth: All ISO standards are the same.

Reality: There are over 20,000 different ISO standards, each addressing different aspects, from quality management to food safety to IT security.

Myth: ISO 9001 is the only important standard.

Reality: While ISO 9001 (which deals with quality management systems) is among the most recognized, many other standards like ISO 14001 (environmental management), ISO 27001 (information security), and others are equally important in their respective areas.

Myth: Achieving ISO certification is the end goal.

Reality: Certification is just the beginning. The idea behind ISO standards is continuous improvement, not just achieving a one-time certification.

Myth: Only big companies need ISO certification.

Reality: Companies of all sizes can benefit from ISO standards. Small to medium-sized enterprises might even find that adopting certain standards gives them a competitive edge.

Myth: ISO standards stifle innovation.

Reality: ISO standards provide a framework. How companies choose to operate within that framework can still be innovative. In fact, many standards, like ISO 9001, encourage regular reviews and improvements.

Myth: ISO is a bureaucratic, profit-driven entity.

Reality: ISO is a non-governmental organization. Its main objective is to facilitate international trade by providing common standards between nations. While certifications can be costly, the main goal is not profit but international cooperation and standardization.

Myth: All ISO standards are mandatory.

Reality: ISO standards are voluntary. However, some industries or governments may make certain standards mandatory, depending on the context.

Myth: ISO standards are only for manufacturers.

Reality: ISO standards cater to various sectors, including services, IT, food, transport, and many others.

Myth: Being ISO certified guarantees business success.

Reality: ISO certification can provide a company with a framework for improvement and can instill confidence in stakeholders. However, business success depends on many factors, including market demand, management decisions, and more.

Understanding the real implications of ISO standards and their certifications can help companies make informed decisions and harness the full benefits that these standards offer.

How Companies Get ISO Certified

ISO certification is a seal of approval from a third party body that a company runs its operations according to international standards. Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of how companies typically get ISO certified:

  • Determine the Relevant ISO Certification: There are various types of ISO certifications available (e.g., ISO 9001 for quality management, ISO 14001 for environmental management, ISO 27001 for information security management, etc.). A company must first determine which certification aligns with its operations and objectives.
  • Understand the Standard: Once the relevant ISO standard is identified, the company should obtain a copy of the standard and understand its requirements. This often requires thorough study or consultation with experts.
  • Conduct a Gap Analysis: Before implementing changes to align with the ISO standard, companies typically conduct a gap analysis to identify what is already in compliance and where changes are needed. This involves a comprehensive review of current processes, procedures, and practices.
  • Plan and Implement Changes: Based on the gap analysis, the company should develop an action plan to address areas of non-compliance. This might involve revising procedures, improving processes, or implementing new systems. Employee training may also be necessary to ensure everyone understands the new protocols.
  • Internal Audit: After changes have been implemented, an internal audit is conducted to check compliance with the ISO standard. This helps identify any remaining issues that need addressing before an official certification audit.
  • Choose a Certification Body: ISO does not certify organizations directly. Instead, external certification bodies are responsible for this. It’s essential to choose a reputable, accredited certification body to conduct the audit and grant certification.
  • Certification Audit: The chosen certification body will conduct an audit. This typically happens in two stages:
    • Stage 1 (Documentation Review): This is a preliminary audit where the auditors review the company’s documentation to ensure it meets the ISO standard’s requirements.
    • Stage 2 (Main Audit): Auditors visit the company to verify that practices adhere to the documented procedures and ISO standard requirements. They will interview staff, observe operations, and review documentation.
  • Address Non-Conformities: If the auditors identify any non-conformities (areas where the company doesn’t meet the standard), the company must address these and provide evidence of correction.
  • Receive Certification: If the company meets all requirements and addresses any non-conformities, the certification body will issue an ISO certificate. This certifies that the company operates in compliance with the specified ISO standard.
  • Maintain and Renew Certification: ISO certification isn’t a one-time event. Regular surveillance audits (usually annually or bi-annually) are conducted to ensure ongoing compliance. Additionally, the certification is typically valid for three years, after which a re-certification audit is necessary.

It’s essential to note that gaining ISO certification is not just about obtaining a certificate; it’s about improving processes, enhancing efficiency, and meeting customer and stakeholder expectations.


ISO standards have become indispensable in enabling global trade and communication. By providing uniform specifications and quality management frameworks accepted worldwide, ISO empowers organizations to break down barriers and access international markets. Companies that achieve ISO certification signal their commitment to excellence in products, services, and systems.

While ISO originated from a need for industrial standards, its standards today touch almost every domain as diverse as sustainability, IT security, risk management, and social responsibility. ISO’s consensus-based approach also offers the highest level of credibility and widespread adoption. As the world gets increasingly connected, ISO remains dedicated to shaping standards that lower trade barriers and promote mutual understanding.

Looking ahead, ISO appears poised to extend its influence and develop new standards for emerging technologies like AI, 5G, and advanced manufacturing. Companies would do well to keep up-to-date on relevant ISO standards that impact their operations. Though ISO adoption involves effort, the long-term gains in efficiency, risk reduction, and reputation make the investment highly worthwhile. By tapping into ISO’s globally recognized frameworks, organizations can assure customers worldwide and gain a sustainable competitive edge.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on ISO

Q: What does ISO stand for?

Ans: ISO stands for the International Organization for Standardization. It is an independent, non-governmental international body that develops and publishes standards.

Q: When was ISO established?

Ans: ISO was founded in 1947 and is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. Its roots date back to 1926 when the International Federation of the National Standardizing Associations (ISA) was created.

Q: How many ISO standards are there?

Ans: ISO has published over 23,000 international standards covering almost every industry sector. Some of the most well-known standards are ISO 9001, ISO 14001, ISO 31000, and ISO 27001.

Q: What are the benefits of ISO standards?

Ans: Benefits include access to global markets, increased efficiency, consistent quality, competitive advantage, risk management, legal compliance, sustainability, and continual improvement.

Q: Are ISO standards mandatory?

Ans: ISO standards are voluntary unless made compulsory by local regulations. Companies can choose whether to get ISO certification or not.

Q: Does ISO directly certify organizations?

Ans: No, ISO does not directly audit or certify companies. ISO develops standards, but independent third-party certification bodies audit organizations to verify if they meet ISO standards. Organizations receive ISO certification from these external certification bodies.

Q: How often do ISO certifications need renewal?

Ans: ISO certifications are valid for 3 years after which a renewal audit needs to be passed to regain certification.

Q: Can small businesses get ISO certified?

Ans: Yes, ISO standards and certification are meant for companies of all sizes, not just large corporations.

Q: What does passing an ISO audit involve?

Ans: Audits examine if the organization conforms to requirements in the standard through activities like interviewing staff, reviewing records, and inspecting premises. Any gaps must be addressed.

Q: Does ISO certification guarantee product quality?

Ans: While it indicates strong quality management, ISO certification does not by itself guarantee the quality of an organization’s products and services. Customers should still evaluate quality themselves.

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