Business and the Benefit of the ISO

Business and the Benefit of the ISO

Essay by: Mike Shesterkin, Exec. Director

Last week, we went a bit deeper into the basics of looking at the business through a systems thinking lens. This week, we’ll continue our study, but will take a diversion and examine the resources and knowledge available to us for sharpening our perspective.

While we touched on the International Standards Organization (ISO), it’s worth spending time looking into why the ISO is a primary and valuable resource for knowledge and understanding. To give us some context, let’s start with the history of the ISO and why it makes for such a rich resource.

To begin, the ISO is an example of an organization that forms – in essence – for the sole purpose of advancing an art or science. These organizations – sometimes referred to as professional associations or societies – have legacies rooted in the guild systems of the Medieval ages. There’s no time to get into the history of all this here; however, excellent works by Craig Murphy and Elliot Krause provide perspective on this legacy. It’s important to note, though, that the notion of guild power, which is rooted in the communitarian, as opposed to the transactional, is at work in professional societies and organizations such as the ISO.

What is today the ISO got its start in 1926, in Europe, as the International Federation of the National Standardizing Associations (ISA). During WWII, the ISA was disbanded, but by the time the war ended, when Europe lay in ruins, the United Nations Standards Coordinating Committee (UNSCC) approached ISA about reforming. In 1947, the ISO was formed in Geneva Switzerland, in part, to develop manufacturing standards necessary for efficient international trade, which was vital for the reconstruction of Europe.

By the 1970s, the ISO had changed its scope, and began to focus on environmental quality standards; by the ’90s, it added quality systems to the scope, which is when the standard with which many are familiar, ISO9000, came into view. Another guidance standard, ISO14000, is one that is likely familiar to many; it is concerned with the environmental aspects and impacts of an organization (we’ll be drilling into this standard more in future articles).

So, why the emphasis on the ISO? The answer gets back to the notion of guild power, to which I alluded above. The ISO creates what are known as “voluntary consensus standards”, and it is this notion of voluntary consensus that harkens back to the guild system.

Voluntary consensus means that a group of volunteers – folks who simply give of their time – have, through a disciplined and democratic process, arrived at a consensus on what is best, or at least appropriate at the time. The standards promulgated by the ISO represent the work of somewhere near 100,000 volunteers, from all over the world, respected scientists and technicians in their fields, who are passionate about what they do and derive little more from their contribution than the satisfaction of knowing they’ve worked to make the world a better place.

At the risk of overstating something, what lies behind such work – volunteer work by folks who are passionate about what they do – is a force that transcends the transactional. It’s easy to see this power in the work of a musician, or any other artist: Material gain is not the significant motivator, but rather an innate and uniquely human drive to contribute. There is a purity in this sort of work; it is antithetical to abominations such as greenwashing, or the sort of mass manipulation we see in this age, a manipulation born of profligate corporate power and motivated by the aggregation of wealth alone.

With this firm foundational understanding of the authenticity of ISO standards, we’ll get a bit more into the specifics and knowledge that comes from such standards as ISO14000, and the social responsibility standard, ISO26000, in later articles.

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