Introduction to ISO

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What are standards ?

Standards are documented agreements containing technical specifications or other precise criteria to be used consistently as rules, guidelines, or definitions of characteristics, to ensure that materials, products, processes and services are fit for their purpose.

For example, the format of the credit cards, phone cards, and "smart" cards that have become commonplace is derived from an ISO International Standard. Adhering to the standard, which defines such features as an optimal thickness (0,76 mm), means that the cards can be used worldwide.

International Standards thus contribute to making life simpler, and to increasing the reliability and effectiveness of the goods and services we use.

What is ISO ?

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is a worldwide federation of national standards bodies from some 100 countries, one from each country.

ISO is a non-governmental organization established in 1947. The mission of ISO is to promote the development of standardization and related activities in the world with a view to facilitating the international exchange of goods and services, and to developing cooperation in the spheres of intellectual, scientific, technological and economic activity.

ISO's work results in international agreements which are published as International Standards.

How it all started

International standardization began in the electrotechnical field : the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) was created in 1906. Pioneering work in other fields was carried out by the International Federation of the National Standardizing Associations (ISA), which was set up in 1926. The emphasis within ISA was laid heavily on mechanical engineering.

ISA's activities ceased in 1942, owing to the Second World War. Following a meeting in London in 1946, delegates from 25 countries decided to create a new international organization "the object of which would be to facilitate the international coordination and unification of industrial standards". The new organization, ISO, began to function officially on 23 February 1947.

The first ISO standard was published in 1951 with the title, " Standard reference temperature for industrial length measurement ".

ISO's name : a user's guide

Many people will have noticed a seeming lack of correspondence between the official title when used in full, International Organization for Standardization, and the short form, ISO. Shouldn't the acronym be " IOS " ? Yes, if it were an acronym - which it is not.

In fact, "ISO" is a word, derived from the Greek isos, meaning "equal ", which is the root of the prefix " iso-" that occurs in a host of terms, such as " isometric " (of equal measure or dimensions - Shorter Oxford English Dictionary) and " isonomy " (equality of laws, or of people before the law - ibid.).

From "equal" to "standard", the line of thinking that led to the choice of "ISO" as the name of the organization is easy to follow.

In addition, the name has the advantage of being valid in each of the organization's three official languages - English, French and Russian. The confusion that would arise through the use of an acronym is thus avoided, e.g. "IOS" would not correspond to the official title of the organization in French - Organisation internationale de normalisation.

International standardization : What does it achieve ?

Industry-wide standardization is a condition existing within a particular industrial sector when the large majority of products or services conform to the same standards. It results from consensus agreements reached between all economic players in that industrial sector - suppliers, users, and often governments. They agree on specifications and criteria to be applied consistently in the choice and classification of materials, the manufacture of products, and the provision of services. The aim is to facilitate trade, exchange and technology transfer through : Users have more confidence in products and services that conform to International Standards. Assurance of conformity can be provided by manufacturers' declarations, or by audits carried out by independent bodies.

Why is international standardization needed ?

The existence of non-harmonized standards for similar technologies in different countries or regions can contribute to so-called "technical barriers to trade". Export-minded industries have long sensed the need to agree on world standards to help rationalize the international trading process. This was the origin of the establishment of ISO.

International standardization is now well-established for very many technologies in such diverse fields as information processing and communications, textiles, packaging, distribution of goods, energy production and utilization, shipbuilding, banking and financial services. It will continue to grow in importance for all sectors of industrial activity for the foreseeable future.

The main reasons are:

Worldwide progress in trade liberalization

Today's free-market economies increasingly encourage diverse sources of supply and provide opportunities for expanding markets. On the technology side, fair competition needs to be based on identifiable, clearly defined common references that are recognized from one country to the next, and from one region to the other. An industry-wide standard, internationally recognized, developed by consensus arnong trading partners, serves as the language of trade.

Interpenetration of sectors

No industry in today's world can truly claim to be completely independent of components, products, rules of application, etc., that have been developed in other sectors. Bolts are used in aviation and for agricultural machinery; welding plays a role in mechanical and nuclear engineering. and electronic data processing has penetrated all industries. Environmentally friendly products and processes, and recyclable or biodegradable packaging are pervasive concerns.

Worldwide communications systems

The computer industry offers a good example of technology that needs quickly and progressively to be standardized at a global level. ISO's OSI (Open Systems Interconnection) is the best-known series of International Standards in this area. Full compatibility among open systems fosters healthy competition among producers, and offers real options to users since it is a powerful catalyst for innovation, improved productivity and cost-cutting.

Global standards needs for emerging technologies

Standardization programmes in completely new fields are now being developed. Such fields include advanced materials, the environment, life sciences, urbanization and construction. In the very early stages of new technology development, applications can be imagined but functional prototypes do not exist. Here, the need for standardization is in defining terminology and accumulating databases of quantitative information.

Developing countries

Development agencies are increasingly recognizing that a standardization infrastructure is a basic condition for the success of economic policies aimed at achieving sustainable development. Creating such an infrastructure in developing countries is essential for improving productivity, market competitiveness, and export capability.

Who makes up ISO ?

A member body of ISO is the national body "most representative of standardization in its country". It follows that only one such body for each country is accepted for membership.

The member bodies have four principal tasks:

A correspondent member is usually an organization in a country which does not yet have a fully developed national standards activity. Correspondent members do not take an active part in the technical work, but are entitled to be kept fully informed about the work of interest to them.

ISO has also established a third category, subscriber membership, for countries with very small economies. These subscribers pay reduced membership fees that nevertheless allow them to maintain contact with international standardization.

Who does the work ?

The technical work of ISO is highly decentralized, carried out in a hierarchy of some 2 700 technical committees, subcommittees and working groups. In these committees, qualified representatives of industry, research institutes, government authorities, consumer bodies, and international organizations from all over the world come together as equal partners in the resolution of global standardization problems.

The major responsibility for administrating a standards committee is accepted by one of the national standards bodies that make up the ISO membership - AFNOR, ANSI, BSI, CSBTS, DIN, SIS, etc. The member body holding the secretariat of a standards committee normally appoints one or two persons to do the technical and administrative work. A committee chairman assists committee members in reaching consensus. Generally, a consensus will mean that a particular solution to the problem at hand is the best possible one for international application at that time.

The Central Secretariat in Geneva acts to ensure the flow of documentation in all directions, to clarify technical points with secretariats and chairmen, and to ensure that the agreements approved by the technical committees are edited, printed, submitted as draft International Standards to ISO member bodies for voting, and published. Meetings of technical committees and subcommittees are convened by the Central Secretariat, which coordinates all such meetings with the committee secretariats before setting the date and place. Although the greater part of the ISO technical work is done by correspondence, there are, on average, a dozen ISO meetings taking place somewhere in the world every working day of the year.

Each member body interested in a subject has the right to be represented on a committee. International organizations, governmental and non-governmental, in liaison with ISO, also take part in the work. ISO collaborates closely with the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) on all matters of electrotechnical standardization.

The publication ISO Memento provides information on the scope of responsibility, organizational structure and secretariats for each ISO technical committee. Detailed rules of procedure for the technical work are given in the ISO/IEC Directives. A list of the 500 international organizations in liaison with ISO's technical committees and subcommittees is given in the publication ISO Liaisons.

What fields are covered ?

The scope of ISO is not limited to any particular branch; it covers all standardization fields except electrical and electronic engineering, which is the responsibility of IEC. The work in the field of information technology is carried out by a joint ISO/IEC technical committee (JTC 1).

What's in a standard ?

What does an ISO standard look like? It can be anything from a four-page document to a 1000-page tome, including twice the weight of the standard itself in informative annexes. It may specify the tasks that a certain range of equipment must be able to perform, or describe in detail an apparatus and its safety features. It may contain symbols, definitions, diagrams, codes, test methods, etc.

How are ISO standards developed ?

ISO standards are developed according to the following principles: There are three main phases in the ISO standards development process.

The need for a standard is usually expressed by an industry sector, which communicates this need to a national member body. The latter proposes the new work item to ISO as a whole. Once the need for an International Standard has been recognized and formally agreed, the first phase involves definition of the technical scope of the future standard. This phase is usually carried out in working groups which comprise technical experts from countries interested in the subject matter.

Once agreement has been reached on which technical aspects are to be covered in the standard, a second phase is entered during which countries negotiate the detailed specifications within the standard. This is the consensus-building phase.

The final phase comprises the formal approval of the resulting draft International Standard (the acceptance criteria stipulate approval by two-thirds of the ISO members that have participated actively in the standards development process, and approval by 75 % of all members that vote), following which the agreed text is published as an ISO International Standard.

Most standards require periodic revision. Several factors combine to render a standard out of date: technological evolution, new methods and materials, new quality and safety requirements. To take account of these factors, ISO has established the general rule that all ISO standards should be reviewed at intervals of not more than five years. On occasion, it is necessary to revise a standard earlier.

To accelerate the standards process (handling of proposals, drafts, comment reviews, voting, publishing, etc.) ISO makes use of information technology and programme management methods.

To date, ISO's work has resulted in 9 300 International Standards, representing some 170 700 pages in English and French (terminology is often provided in other languages as well).

A list of all ISO standards appears in the ISO Catalogue.

How is ISO's work financed ?

The financing of ISO closely reflects its decentralized mode of operation with, on the one hand, the financing of the Central Secretariat activities and, on the other hand, the financing of the technical work as such of the technical secretariats.

The financing of the Central Secretariat derives from member body subscriptions (70 %) and revenues from the sale of the Organization's standards and other publications (30 %). The subscriptions required of member bodies for financing the operations of the Central Secretariat are expressed in units and calculated in Swiss francs (CHF). The number of units that each member body is invited to pay is calculated on the basis of economic indicators of gross national product (GNP), and value of imports and exports. The value of the subscription unit is set each year by the ISO Council.

The ISO member bodies bear the expenditure necessary for the operation of the individual technical secretariats for which they are responsible. It is generally estimated that the operating expenditure of the Central Secretariat (about 27 million Swiss francs in 1994) represents about one-fifth of the total cost of financing the ISO administrative operations.

To that, one must also add the value of the voluntary contributions of some 30 000 experts in terms of time, travel and organization of meetings. While no precise calculation has ever been made to assess in figures this contribution of fundamental knowledge to the work of ISO, it is nevertheless certain that this expenditure amounts to several hundred million Swiss francs each year.

World system


ISO does not work alone in international standardization. It collaborates very closely with its partner,the International Electrotechnical Commission, IEC. An agreement reached in 1976 defines responsibilities: the IEC covers the field of electrical and electronic engineering, all other subject areas being attributed to ISO. When necessary, attribution of responsibility for work programmes to ISO or IEC is made by mutual agreement. In specific cases of mutual interest, joint technical bodies or working groups are set up. Common working procedures ensure efficient coordination and the widest possible global application.

ISO and IEC are not part of the United Nations, but have many technical liaisons with the specialized UN agencies. Several are actively involved in international standardization such as the International Telecommunication Union, the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency, etc.

The relationship with regional standardization

ISO maintains close working relations with regional groups of standards bodies. In practice, the members of such regional groups are also members of ISO and the principle is generally accepted that ISO standards are taken as the basis for whatever standards are required to meet the particular needs of a given geographical region.

ISO and CEN (European Committee for Standardization), for example, have defined procedures for the development of standards that will be acceptable both as European Standards and as International Standards. The benefits for industry are wide-reaching. With the motto, "Do it once, do it right, do it internationally", being practised, industry does not need to be involved in both European and international fora in the same areas.

Searching for information

Enquiries about standards involve those of ISO and a number of recognized standards agreed within other international technical organizations. There are, in addition, several hundred thousand standards and technical regulations in use throughout the world containing special requirements for a particular country or region. Finding information about all these standards, technical regulations, or related testing and certification activities, can be a heavy task.

ISONET, the ISO Information Network, is there to ease the problem. This is a worldwide network of national standards information centres which have cooperatively developed a system to provide rapid access to information about standards, technical regulations, and testing and certification activities currently used in different parts of the world. Members of this network - usually the ISO member for any given country - act effectively as "specialized enquiry points" in the dissemination of information and in identifying the relevant sources of information for solving specific problems. The Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade, drawn up under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)*, calls upon its signatories to establish in each country an enquiry point capable of answering questions about the standards, technical regulations and certification systems in force in that country. In many countries, the ISONET enquiry point and the WTO enquiry point are one and the same.

* Now the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Consulting and training services

ISO and many of its members are actively involved in consulting and training services which include seminars on the application of standards in quality assurance systems, technical assistance to exporters concerning standards requirements in other countries, workshops on consumer involvement in standardization, and conferences and symposia covering recent developments in testing and certification.

For the particular needs of its developing country members, ISO operates a special programme consisting of training seminars, publication of development manuals, and various other kinds of expert assistance. This programme, which is supported by governmental aid agencies and ISO members from several industrialized countries, provides an important mechanism through which developing countries may accelerate the advancement of their national standardization and quality assurance systems.

The international collaborative network of standardization and standards-related activities is open to all interests and is directly accessible through the ISO members or the ISO Central Secretariat in Geneva.

What's news in international standardization?

As an integral part of its governing activities, ISO develops, approves and updates a long range strategic plan for improvement over a three-year period. The current such report is ISO's long-range strategies 1996-1998: Raising Standards for the World.

An annual report is published in the first quarter of each year.

The mainstream publications of ISO are International Standards. ISO also issues a number of other publications which include the ISO Catalogue, standards handbooks, guides and several informative books and pamphlets. The leaflet Publications other than International Standards provides details.

News of the various aspects of standardization work, standards in process, new International Standards and other publications, committee meetings and feature articles on standards are presented in the monthly ISO Bulletin. ISO 9000 News, published six times a year, is part of an ISO 9000 News Service package which entitles members of the News Service to a subscription to the monthly ISO Bulletin, information on new and revised editions of the ISO 9000 series, and on sources of training material. Services also include special publications relevant to ISO 9000.

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