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What is the International Organization for Standardization (ISO)?

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  • Last Modified Date: 04 November 2016
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As countries and cultures become more global and less isolated, standards in everything from science, measurement, quality, manufacturing, environmental sciences, safety and trade are required for ease of trade, travel and collaboration. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is the child of two separate organizations, the International Federation of the National Standardizing Associations (ISA), which was founded in 1926 in New York, and the United Nations Standards Coordinating Committee (UNSCC).

In 1946, 25 countries sent delegates to London to meet at the Institute of Civil Engineers, in the hopes of establishing an international agency that could collaboratively created industrial standards that could be adopted internationally. On 23 February 1947, ISO was created and began its work. In the last six decades, the ISO has created and established more than 16,500 standards. Freight containers, banking and telephone cards, computer protocols and testing methods are all standards the ISO has set, thereby facilitating easier trade, travel and research collaboration around the world.

The ISO connects 157 national standards institutes from around the world — each member country being represented by one institute. The ISO is managed by a Central Secretariat, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. It is a non-government agency, although many of the participating institutions are government agencies, and others are private. The name is obviously different in other languages, but the acronym ISO remains the same, for the sake of standardization. ISO is from the Greek word, isos meaning “equal.”

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ISO is a democratic organization, with each member country having one vote. Each member country has equal influence, and all the standards are voluntary. The ISO has no authority or jurisdiction to enforce the standards it establishes. The standards are market driven, established by consensus, and are highly relevant to the current needs set by consumers, governments, businesses, market trends, etc.

The ISO establishes standards defining quality, safety and interchangeability in products, environmental standards, common technical language and terminology, classification of materials, manufacture testing and analysis, among many other areas. Without their work, countries would have extreme difficulty conducting efficient and profitable trade, sharing medical and scientific research, establishing environmental legislation, and assessing conformity in manufacturing.

The ISO continues to be instrumental in establishing universal standards that in large part are generally accepted and adopted by member nations in particular. Over the last few decades, it has also been especially concerned with the participation of developing countries, and has made a great effort to give these countries the financial support as well as technical assistance needed to be part of global standardization.

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Monika
Post 8

I've heard that there's been some controversy about the International Organization for Standardization in the past. You see, they make physical standards available-like a physical standard showing how much a liter or a gram is.

However, the ISO doesn't give standards away. They sell them! Some people feel that the ISO shouldn't be making a profit off of standardization.

strawCake
Post 7

I think international standards for stuff like measurements make a ton of sense. I feel like the world gets smaller and smaller because of technology every single year. People travel and do business internationally all the time.

Imagine how confusing it would be a gram wasn't the same in the United States, Australia, or Spain? It would make food and product labeling difficult, for one thing.

ysmina
Post 6

I agree with @allenJo. Businesses don't have to conform to ISO standards, but if it's a business that supplies parts or products to other businesses, it's going to be a huge advantage for them. ISO doesn't certify businesses, but businesses can advertise their products saying that it conforms to ISO quality and standards. And people will want to buy these products over others.

If I were a small business, I would also want to buy from a company that can guarantee consistent and high quality products. It's just more dependable and will save me money in the long run.

burcinc
Post 5

I'm sure ISO standards have benefited consumers, but I think it's benefited manufacturers more than anything.

Almost all major manufacturers have facilities in other countries these days. Most electronics I buy are assembled in one country, but different parts are actually made in different countries. Can you imagine what a disaster it would be if these countries didn't manufacture parts according to the same measurement standards? Manufacturers would be unable to produce goods because the parts wouldn't fit one another.

It would be bad for us too because the chances of a product breaking down or disfunctioning would be much higher. Goods would be lower quality than they are now.

everetra
Post 4

@allenJo - The point you mentioned about the bottom line is the most important point to make in my opinion.

A lot of companies are more focused on profit. What does adhering to ISO standards get them? Add to that the fact that the standards aren’t really enforced in any way. Each company has to conduct its own ISO audit to ensure that it is following its prescribed guidelines.

For the larger corporations, it does matter. I know that some of the larger businesses sometimes miss out on opportunities if they are not ISO certified. Some customers do demand it.

The problem is that ISO certifying a business means practically putting every quality control standard down on paper

, and as anyone knows, in business change is often the constant not the exception. You have to be fluid, move quickly with the markets.

I don’t know; I don’t think it’s necessarily worth it for all the hassle. But if it definitely affects your bottom line, go for it.

NathanG
Post 3

@allenJo - I think some companies, especially smaller businesses, like to play things by the ear with respect to the whole issue of quality control. Also, it depends on what kind of industry you’re in too.

ISO is a general certification that spans all industries, but you might want to focus on another certification that is specific to your industry.

I think the software industry has things like ITL certification which dictates how systems are put in place to handle things like customer calls, network security and other facets of the business that relate uniquely to the software industry.

ISO is okay as a general certification in my opinion but there may be other business specific certifications that do better for your business.

allenJo
Post 2

I think all companies should adhere to ISO standards in one form or another. They certainly don’t have to, but it’s good for business in my opinion.

The most popular certification in this regard would be the ISO 9001 certification, which is the gold standard for quality management systems. It applies universally across the board to processes and procedures in an organization and can work in a variety of industries, whether it’s the local

meat market or a computer shop.

In our case, I happen to work for a software vendor. I have been pushing for quite some time to put some processes and procedures in place for the work we do, so that we can ensure consistent quality across the board for our services.

The boss has been slow to implement, since it’s not something that necessarily affects the bottom line (not yet, anyway) but it does affect employee morale, when processes seem to change with the wind.

fify
Post 1

I really like that there is ISO certified standards for product labels across the world. When I went to Europe for a year, I did not have trouble figuring out expiration dates, telling apart organic products and any animal testing on products I purchased because the labels looked exactly the same as the ones in the US.

For example, for all products, in the back label, there is a little can sign with an open lid, and a number inside the can followed by 'M.' This stands for how many months the product will last for after opening. I was so relieved to see this on all labels in France and Germany because I don't speak French nor German.

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