Introduction to ISO

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 130 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.

ISO's name

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) and "isonomy" (equality of laws, or of people before the law).

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 ISO is used around the world to denote the organization, thus avoiding the plethora of acronyms resulting from the translation of "International Organization for Standardization" into the different national languages of members, e.g. IOS in English, OIN in French (from Organisation internationale de normalisation). Whatever the country, the short form of the Organization's name is always ISO.

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 well-established for 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 among 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. 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 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.

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:

·        enhanced product quality and reliability at a reasonable price;

·        improved health, safety and environmental protection, and reduction of waste;

·        greater compatibility and interoperability of goods and services;

·        simplification for improved usability;

·        reduction in the number of models, and thus reduction in costs;

·        increased distribution efficiency, and ease of maintenance.

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.

ISO's achievements

Below are some examples of ISO standards that have been widely adopted, giving clear benefits to industry, trade and consumers.

·        The ISO film speed code, among many other photographic equipment standards, has been adopted worldwide making things simpler for the general user.

·        Standardization of the format of telephone and banking cards means the cards can be used worldwide.

·        Tens of thousands of businesses are implementing ISO 9000 which provides a framework for quality management and quality assurance. The ISO 14000 series provides a similar framework for environmental management.

·        The internationally standardized freight container enables all components of a transport system - air and seaport facilities, railways, highways, and packages - to interface efficiently. This, combined with standardized documents to identify sensitive or dangerous cargoes makes international trade cheaper, faster and safer.

·        m, kg, s, A, K, mol, cd are the symbols representing the seven base units of the universal system of measurement known as SI (Système international d'unités). The SI system is covered by a series of 14 International Standards. Without these standards shopping and trade would be haphazard and technological development would be handicapped.

·        Paper sizes. The original standard was published by DIN in 1922. Now used worldwide as ISO 216, standard paper sizes allow economies of scale with cost benefits to both producers and consumers.

·        A well-designed symbol conveys a clearcut message in a multilingual world. The same symbols for automobile controls are displayed in cars all over the world, no matter where they are manufactured.

·        Safety of wire ropes: used on oil rigs, on fishing vessels, in mines, in all types of building operations, for lifts and cable cars, etc. ISO International Standards systematically define basic characteristics such as size, surface finish, type of construction, tensile grade of the wire, minimum breaking load and linear mass. Standardization of performance or safety requirements ensures that user requirements are met while allowing individual manufacturers the freedom to design their own solutions for meeting these basic needs. Consumers then benefit from the effects of competition among manufacturers.

·        The ISO international codes for country names, currencies and languages help to eliminate duplication and incompatibilities in the collection, processing and dissemination of information. As resource-saving tools, universally understandable codes play an important role in both automated and manual documentation.

·        The diversity of screw threads for identical applications used to represent an important technical obstacle to trade. It caused maintenance problems, and lost or damaged nuts or bolts could not easily be replaced. A global solution is supplied in the ISO standards for ISO metric screw threads.


Who makes up ISO?

ISO is made up of its members which are divided into three categories:

A member body of ISO is the national body "most representative of standardization in its country". Thus, only one body in each country may be admitted to membership of ISO.

A member body takes the responsibility for:

·        informing potentially interested parties in their country of relevant international standardization opportunities and initiatives;

·        ensuring that a concerted view of the country's interests is presented during international negotiations leading to standards agreements;

·        providing their country's share of financial support for the central operations of ISO, through payment of membership dues.

Member bodies are entitled to participate and exercise full voting rights on any technical committee and policy committee of ISO.

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 and policy development 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. Subscriber members 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 2 850 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. Some 30 000 experts participate in meetings each year.

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 technical 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).

How are ISO standards developed?

ISO standards are developed according to the following principles:

·        Consensus
The views of all interests are taken into account: manufacturers, vendors and users, consumer groups, testing laboratories, governments, engineering professions and research organizations.

·        Industry-wide
Global solutions to satisfy industries and customers worldwide.

·        Voluntary
International standardization is market-driven and therefore based on voluntary involvement of all interests in the market-place.

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.

It is now also possible to publish interim documents at different stages in the standardization process.

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 date, ISO's work has resulted in some 12 000 International Standards, representing more than 300 000 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.

The financing of the Central Secretariat derives from member  subscriptions (80 %) and revenues from the sale of the Organization's standards and other publications (20 %). The subscriptions required of members 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 is invited to pay is calculated on the basis of economic indicators: 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 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 and travel. 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.


International partners

ISO collaborates with its international standardization partner, the IEC, whose scope of activities complements ISO's. In turn, ISO and the IEC cooperate on a joint basis with the ITU (International Telecommunication Union). Like ISO, the IEC is a non-governmental body, while the ITU is part of the United Nations Organization and its members are governments.The three organizations have a strong collaboration on standardization in the fields of information technology and telecommunications.

ISO is building a strategic partnership with the World Trade Organization (WTO) with the common goal of promoting a free and fair global trading system. The political agreements reached within the framework of the WTO require underpinning by technical agreements. ISO is being recognized as providing a special technical support role in relationship to the new and expanded WTO programmes.

Regional partners

Many of ISO's members also belong to regional standardization organizations. This makes it easier for ISO to build bridges with regional standardization activities throughout the world. 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. These recognitions are based on a commitment by the regional bodies to adopt ISO standards — whenever possible without change — as the national standards of their members and to initiate the development of divergent standards only if no appropriate ISO standards are available for direct adoption.

In addition, ISO liaises with some 500 international and regional organizations interested in specific aspects of its standardization work.

Enquiries about standards

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 assist customers in retrieval of information required. This is a worldwide network of national standards information centres which have cooperatively agreed 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 in the dissemination of information and in identifying the relevant sources of information for solving specific problems. Each national member of ISONET has a dual responsibility. By joining ISONET it has become the international reference point for information about the standards, technical regulations and certification systems which operate in its own country. Secondly, it is expected to provide its own nationals with an efficient information service on national, foreign, regional and international technical rules.

Information on ISONET members is presented in the ISONET Directory, which gives the addresses of ISONET members, their information centres and sales services, and lists the types of information they are able to provide. The Directory also includes, where relevant, the names and addresses of the enquiry points established under the WTO* Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (WTO TBT) and under the WTO Agreement on Sanitary Phyto-Sanitary (WTO SPS).

World Trade Organization

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.

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".