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ISO standards

About ISO

ISO (International Organization for Standardization) is the world’s largest developer and publisher of International Standards.

ISO is a network of the national standards institutes of 157 countries, one member per country, with a Central Secretariat in Geneva, Switzerland, that coordinates the system.

ISO is a non-governmental organization that forms a bridge between the public and private sectors. On the one hand, many of its member institutes are part of the governmental structure of their countries, or are mandated by their government. On the other hand, other members have their roots uniquely in the private sector, having been set up by national partnerships of industry associations.

Therefore, ISO enables a consensus to be reached on solutions that meet both the requirements of business and the broader needs of society.

ISO’s name

Because “International Organization for Standardization” would have different acronyms in different languages (“IOS” in English, “OIN” in French for Organisation internationale de normalisation), its founders decided to give it also a short, all-purpose name. They chose “ISO”, derived from the Greek isos, meaning “equal”. Whatever the country, whatever the language, the short form of the organization’s name is always ISO.

Why standards matter

Standards make an enormous and positive contribution to most aspects of our lives.

Standards ensure desirable characteristics of products and services such as quality, environmental friendliness, safety, reliability, efficiency and interchangeability – and at an economical cost.

When products and services meet our expectations, we tend to take this for granted and be unaware of the role of standards. However, when standards are absent, we soon notice. We soon care when products turn out to be of poor quality, do not fit, are incompatible with equipment that we already have, are unreliable or dangerous.

When products, systems, machinery and devices work well and safely, it is often because they meet standards. And the organization responsible for many thousands of the standards which benefit the world is ISO.

When standards are absent, we soon notice.

What standards do

ISO standards:

  • make the development, manufacturing and supply of products and services more efficient, safer and cleaner
  • facilitate trade between countries and make it fairer
  • provide governments with a technical base for health, safety and environmental legislation, and conformity assessment
  • share technological advances and good management practice
  • disseminate innovation
  • safeguard consumers, and users in general, of products and services
  • make life simpler by providing solutions to common problems

Who standards benefit

ISO standards provide technological, economic and societal benefits.

For businesses, the widespread adoption of International Standards means that suppliers can develop and offer products and services meeting specifications that have wide international acceptance in their sectors. Therefore, businesses using International Standards can compete on many more markets around the world.

For innovators of new technologies, International Standards on aspects like terminology, compatibility and safety speed up the dissemination of innovations and their development into manufacturable and marketable products.

For customers, the worldwide compatibility of technology which is achieved when products and services are based on International Standards gives them a broad choice of offers. They also benefit from the effects of competition among suppliers.

For governments, International Standards provide the technological and scientific bases underpinning health, safety and environmental legislation.

For trade officials, International Standards create “a level playing field” for all competitors on those markets. The existence of divergent national or regional standards can create technical barriers to trade. International Standards are the technical means by which political trade agreements can be put into practice.

For developing countries, International Standards that represent an international consensus on the state of the art are an important source of technological know-how. By defining the characteristics that products and services will be expected to meet on export markets, International Standards give developing countries a basis for making the right decisions when investing their scarce resources and thus avoid squandering them.

For consumers, conformity of products and services to International Standards provides assurance about their quality, safety and reliability.

For everyone, International Standards contribute to the quality of life in general by ensuring that the transport, machinery and tools we use are safe.

For the planet we inhabit, International Standards on air, water and soil quality, on emissions of gases and radiation and environmental aspects of products can contribute to efforts to preserve the environment.

The ISO brand

  • Democratic

Every full member of ISO has the right to take part in the development of any standard which it judges to be important to its country’s economy. No matter what the size or strength of that economy, each participating member in ISO has one vote. Each country is on an equal footing to influence the direction of ISO’s work at the strategic level, as well as the technical content of its individual standards.

  • Voluntary

ISO standards are voluntary. As a non-governmental organization, ISO has no legal authority to enforce the implementation of its standards. ISO does not regulate or legislate. However, countries may decide to adopt ISO standards – mainly those concerned with health, safety or the environment – as regulations or refer to them in legislation, for which they provide the technical basis. In addition, although ISO standards are voluntary, they may become a market requirement, as has happened in the case of ISO 9001 quality management systems, or of dimensions of freight containers and bank cards.

ISO itself does not regulate or legislate.

  • Market-driven

ISO only develops standards for which there is a market requirement. The work is mainly carried out by experts from the industrial, technical and business sectors which have asked for the standards, and which subsequently put them to use.

  • Consensus

ISO standards are based on international consensus among the experts in the field. Consensus, like technology, evolves and ISO takes account both of evolving technology and of evolving interests by requiring a periodic review of its standards at least every five years to decide whether they should be maintained, updated or withdrawn. In this way, ISO standards retain their position as the state of the art.

  • Globally relevant

ISO standards are technical agreements which provide the framework for compatible technology worldwide. They are designed to be globally relevant – useful everywhere in the world.

ISO standards are useful everywhere in the world.

How to recognize an ISO standard

In paper form, an ISO standard is published in A4 format – which is itself one of the ISO standard paper sizes. It may be anywhere between a four-page document and one several hundred pages’ long. ISO standards are also available as electronic downloads and many are available as part of a collection on CD or in handbook. An ISO standard carries the ISO logo and the designation, “International Standard”.

The scope of ISO’s work

ISO has more than 16 500 International Standards and other types of normative documents in its current portfolio. ISO’s work programme ranges from standards for traditional activities, such as agriculture and construction, through mechanical engineering, manufacturing and distribution, to transport, medical devices, information and communication technologies, and to standards for good management practice and for services.

Examples of the benefits standards provide

Standardization of screw threads helps to keep chairs, children’s bicycles and aircraft together and solves the repair and maintenance problems caused by a lack of standardization that were once a major headache for manufacturers and product users.

Standards establishing an international consensus on terminology make technology transfer easier and safer. They are an important stage in the advancement of new technologies and dissemination of innovation.

Without the standardized dimensions of freight containers, international trade would be slower and more expensive.

Without the standardization of telephone and banking cards, life would be more complicated.

A lack of standardization may even affect the quality of life itself: for the disabled, for example, when they are barred access to consumer products, public transport and buildings because the dimensions of wheel-chairs and entrances are not standardized.

Standardized symbols provide danger warnings and information across linguistic frontiers.

Consensus on grades of various materials gives a common reference for suppliers and clients in business dealings.

Agreement on a sufficient number of variations of a product to meet most current applications allows economies of scale with cost benefits for both producers and consumers. An example is the standardization of paper sizes.

Standardization of performance or safety requirements of diverse equipment makes sure that users’ needs are met while allowing individual manufacturers the freedom to design their own solution on how to meet those needs.

Standardized computer protocols allow products from different vendors to “talk” to each other.

Standardized documents speed up the transit of goods, or identify sensitive or dangerous cargoes that may be handled by people speaking different languages.

Standardization of connections and interfaces of all types ensures the compatibility of equipment of diverse origins and the interoperability of different technologies.

Agreement on test methods allows meaningful comparisons of products, or plays an important part in controlling pollution – whether by noise, vibration or emissions.

Safety standards for machinery protect people at work, at play, at sea… and at the dentist’s.

Without the international agreement contained in ISO standards on metric quantities and units, shopping and trade would be haphazard, science would be unscientific and technological development would be handicapped.

  • For more examples of the many areas of life and work where ISO standards provide technical, economic and social benefits, visit The ISO Café.

What’s different about ISO 9001 and ISO 14001

The vast majority of ISO standards are highly specific to a particular product, material, or process. However, ISO 9001 (quality) and ISO 14001 (environment) are “generic management system standards”. “Generic” means that the same standard can be applied to any organization, large or small, whatever its product or service, in any sector of activity, and whether it is a business enterprise, a public administration, or a government department. ISO 9001 contains a generic set of requirements for implementing a quality management system and ISO 14001 for an environmental management system.

Generic standards can be applied to any organization.

Why conformity assessment is important

“Conformity assessment” means checking that products, materials, services, systems, processes or people measure up to the specifications of a relevant standard or specification. Today, many products require testing for conformity with specifications or compliance with safety, or other regulations before they can be put on many markets. ISO guides and standards for conformity assessment represent an international consensus on best practice. Their use contributes to the consistency of conformity assessment worldwide and so facilitates trade.

  • See ISO’s Conformity assessment pages for more detailed information.

What “international standardization” means

When the large majority of products or services in a particular business or industry sector conform to International Standards, a state of industry-wide standardization exists. The economic stakeholders concerned agree on specifications and criteria to be applied consistently in the classification of materials, in the manufacture and supply of products, in testing and analysis, in terminology and in the provision of services. In this way, International Standards provide a reference framework, or a common technological language, between suppliers and their customers. This facilitates trade and the transfer of technology.

ISO’s origins

In 1946, delegates from 25 countries met in London and decided to create a new international organization, of which the object would be “to facilitate the international coordination and unification of industrial standards”. The new organization, ISO, officially began operations on 23 February 1947, in Geneva, Switzerland.

  • Read The ISO Story for a historical perspective of ISO.

Who can join ISO

Membership of ISO is open to national standards institutes most representative of standardization in their country (one member in each country).

  • Full members, known as member bodies, each have one vote, whatever the size or strength of the economy of the country concerned.
  • Correspondent members pay reduced membership fees. They are entitled to participate in any policy or technical body as observers, with no voting rights.
  • Subscriber members also pay reduced membership fees. They are institutes from countries with very small economies that nevertheless wish to maintain contact with international standardization.

Although individuals or enterprises are not eligible for membership, both have a range of opportunities for taking part in ISO’s work:

  • Individuals may be selected by national member institutes to serve as experts on national delegations participating in ISO technical committees
  • Individuals and enterprises may provide their input during the process of developing a national consensus for presentation by the delegation. This may done through national mirror committees to the corresponding ISO technical committee
  • International organizations and associations, both non-governmental and representing industry sectors, can apply for liaison status to a technical committee. They do not vote, but can participate in the debates and the development of consensus.

There is a range of opportunities for taking part in ISO’s work.

How the ISO system is managed

All strategic decisions are referred to the ISO members, who meet for an annual General Assembly. The proposals put to the members are developed by the ISO Council, drawn from the membership as a whole, which resembles the board of directors of a business organization.

ISO Council meets twice a year and its membership is rotated to ensure that it is representative of ISO’s membership.

ISO’s operations are managed by a Secretary-General, which is a permanent appointment resembling the chief executive of a business enterprise. The Secretary-General reports to the ISO Council, the latter being chaired by the President who is a prominent figure in standardization or in business, elected for two years.

The Secretary-General is based at ISO Central Secretariat in Geneva, Switzerland, with a compact staff which provides administrative and technical support to the ISO members, coordinates the decentralized standards’ development programme, and publishes the output.

How the ISO system is financed

ISO’s national members pay subscriptions that meet the operational cost of ISO’s Central Secretariat. The subscription paid by each member is in proportion to the country’s Gross National Income and trade figures. Another source of revenue is the sale of standards.

However, the operations of ISO Central Secretariat represent only about one fifth of the cost of the system’s operation. The main costs are borne by the member bodies that manage the specific standards development projects and the business organizations that provide experts to participate in the technical work. These organizations are, in effect, subsidizing the technical work by paying the travel costs of the experts and allowing them time to work on their ISO assignments.

How ISO decides to develop a standard

ISO launches the development of new standards in response to the sectors that express a clearly established need for them. An industry or business sector communicates its requirement for a standard to one of ISO’s national members. The latter then proposes the new work item to ISO as a whole. If accepted, the work item is assigned to an existing technical committee. Proposals may also be made to set up technical committees to cover new scopes of activity.

At the end of 2006, there were 3 041 technical bodies in the ISO system, including 193 ISO technical committees.

The focus of the technical committees is specialized and specific. In addition, ISO has three general policy development committees that provide strategic guidance for the standards’ development work on cross-sector aspects. These committees ensure that the specific technical work is aligned with broader market and stakeholder group interests. They are:

  • CASCO (conformity assessment)
  • COPOLCO (consumer policy), and
  • DEVCO (developing country matters)

Who develops ISO standards

ISO standards are developed by technical committees comprising experts from the industrial, technical and business sectors which have asked for the standards, and which subsequently put them to use. These experts may be joined by representatives of government agencies, testing laboratories, consumer associations, non-governmental organizations and academic circles.

The experts participate as national delegations, chosen by the ISO national member institute for the country concerned. These delegations are required to represent not just the views of the organizations in which their participating experts work, but of other stakeholders too.

According to ISO rules, the member institute is expected to take account of the views of the range of parties interested in the standard under development. This enables them to present a consolidated, national consensus position to the technical committee.

ISO standards are developed by experts from the sectors which have asked for them.

How ISO standards are developed

The national delegations of experts of a technical committee meet to discuss, debate and argue until they reach consensus on a draft agreement. This is circulated as a Draft International Standard (DIS) to ISO’s membership as a whole for comment and balloting.

Many members have public review procedures for making draft standards known and available to interested parties and to the general public. The ISO members then take account of any feedback they receive in formulating their position on the draft standard.

If the voting is in favour, the document, with eventual modifications, is circulated to the ISO members as a Final Draft International Standard (FDIS). If that vote is positive, the document is then published as an International Standard.

Every working day of the year, an average of eight ISO meetings are taking place somewhere in the world. In between meetings, the experts continue the standards’ development work by correspondence. Increasingly, their contacts are made by electronic means and some ISO technical bodies have already gone over entirely to working electronically, which speeds up the development of standards and cuts travel costs.

  • See Stages of the development of an International Standard for more detail of the development process.

ISO’s international partners

ISO collaborates with its partners in international standardization, the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The three organizations, all based in Geneva, Switzerland, have formed the World Standards Cooperation (WSC) to act as a strategic focus for collaboration and the promotion of international standardization.

ISO has a close relationship with the World Trade Organization (WTO) which particularly appreciates the contribution of ISO’s standards to reducing technical barriers to trade.

ISO collaborates with the United Nations (UN) Organization and its specialized agencies and commissions, particularly those involved in the harmonization of regulations and public policies, such as:

  • CODEX Alimentarius, on food safety measurement, management and traceability
  • UN Economic Commission for Europe (UN/ECE), on the safety of motor vehicles and the transportation of dangerous goods
  • World Health Organization (WHO), on health technologies
  • International Maritime Organization (IMO), on transport security
  • World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), on the quality of services related to tourism.

In addition, ISO cooperates with UN organizations that provide assistance and support to developing countries, such as the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the International Trade Centre (ITC).

ISO’s technical committees have formal liaison relations with over 600 international and regional organizations.

ISO has reinforced its links, too, with international organizations representing different groups of stakeholders, including:

  • World Economic Forum (WEF)
  • Consumers International (CI)
  • World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), and
  • International Federation of Standards Users (IFAN).

Lastly, ISO also collaborates regularly with the major international organizations for metrology, quality and conformity assessment.

ISO’s regional partners

Many of ISO’s members also belong to regional standardization organizations. ISO has recognized regional standards organizations representing Africa, the Arab countries, the area covered by the Commonwealth of Independent States, Europe, Latin America, the Pacific area, and the South-East Asia nations. The regional bodies (listed below) commit themselves to adopt ISO standards as the national standards of their members.

  • African Regional Organization for Standardization (ARSO)
  • Arab Industrial Development and Mining Organization (AIDMO)
  • European Committee for Standardization (CEN)
  • Pan American Standards Commission (COPANT)
  • Euro Asian Council for Standardization, Metrology and Certification (EASC)
  • Pacific Area Standards Congress (PASC)
  • ASEAN Consultative Committee for Standards and Quality (ACCSQ)

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last modified 2008-02-08

–>· SEI = ‘Software Engineering Institute’ at Carnegie-Mellon University; initiated by the U.S. Defense Department to help improve software development processes.

· CMM = ‘Capability Maturity Model’, developed by the SEI. It’s a model of 5 levels of organizational ‘maturity’ that determine effectiveness in delivering quality software. It is geared to large organizations such as large U.S. Defense Department contractors. However, many of the QA processes involved are appropriate to any organization, and if reasonably applied can be helpful. Organizations can receive CMM ratings by undergoing assessments by qualified auditors.

Level 1 – characterized by chaos, periodic panics, and heroic efforts required by individuals to successfully complete projects. Few if any processes in place; successes may not be repeatable.

Level 2 – software project tracking, requirements management, realistic planning, and configuration management processes are in place; successful practices can be repeated.

Level 3 – standard software development and maintenance processes are integrated throughout an organization; a Software Engineering Process Group is in place to oversee software processes, and training programs are used to ensure understanding and compliance.

Level 4 – metrics are used to track productivity, processes, and products. Project performance is predictable, and quality is consistently high.

Level 5 – the focus is on continuous process improvement. The impact of new processes and technologies can be predicted and effectively implemented when required.

· ISO = ‘International Organization for Standards’ – The ISO 9001, 9002, and 9003 standards concern quality systems that are assessed by outside auditors, and they apply to many kinds of production and manufacturing organizations, not just software. The most comprehensive is 9001, and this is the one most often used by software development organizations. It covers documentation, design, development, production, testing, installation, servicing, and other processes. ISO 9000-3 (not the same as 9003) is a guideline for applying ISO 9001 to software development organizations. The U.S. version of the ISO 9000 series standards is exactly the same as the international version, and is called the ANSI/ASQ Q9000 series. The U.S. version can be purchased directly from the ASQ (American Society for Quality) or the ANSI organizations. To be ISO 9001 certified, a third-party auditor assesses an organization, and certification is typically good for about 3 years, after which a complete reassessment is required. Note that ISO 9000 certification does not necessarily indicate quality products – it indicates only that documented processes are followed.

· IEEE = ‘Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ – among other things, creates standards such as ‘IEEE Standard for Software Test Documentation’ (IEEE/ANSI Standard 829), ‘IEEE Standard of Software Unit Testing (IEEE/ANSI Standard 1008), ‘IEEE Standard for Software Quality Assurance Plans’ (IEEE/ANSI Standard 730), and others.

· ANSI = ‘American National Standards Institute’, the primary industrial standards body in the U.S.; publishes some software-related standards in conjunction with the IEEE and ASQ (American Society for Quality).

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